On Women’s Refusal in Israel

Back to table of contents By Tali Lerner, New Profile Citizenship in Israel is judged in terms of the relations between a certain group and the military. Ultra-orthodox Jewish or Arab citizens are perceived as second-rate citizens. This is legitimised because they are exempted from compulsory military service. By contrast, other social groups, for instance, the Bedouins and the Druze, as well as members of the gay-lesbian community, by contrast, rest their claim for equal citizenship on their equal share in shouldering the burden of the country's security. Women's relations with the state, and with the army in particular, are even more complex. Women's right to vote and their duty to enlist were affirmed with the establishment of the state — indeed, Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has compulsory military service for women. As a result, the state accepts women's citizenship in terms of their taking equal part in military service, yet at the same time also excludes them because women cannot become truly equal members of the military organisation and take equal part in military duties. This creates serious complexities for the local feminist and antimilitarist movements. Women's refusal to enlist is therefore a very complicated phenomenon, reflecting some basic feminist dilemmas.

The Discourse on Citizenship in Israel

From its very inception — and even before it — military service (or service in the paramilitary groups that preceded the Israeli army) was always a central social institution. A movement for national renewal, Zionism, and later Israel, purported to create a new Jewish individual who would come to replace the old stereotype of an effeminate, physically and morally weak person. Military organisations played a crucial role in the shaping of the ideal Zionist individual. This intense equation between the citizen and the soldier became more and more entrenched as the state and its institutions evolved. Reference to the individual citizen's military service is universal: it filters through the most basic levels of talk about civil society; it is in the workplace, and plays a role in getting a driving licence or in any other formal exchanges with the authorities. When we zoom into specific social groups, the situation is even more problematic. The interrelations between so-called “minority groups” and mainstream society are very often defined in terms of their position vis a vis the army. There is considerable pressure to make the connection between citizenship and army service direct and unambiguous, which would in effect mean depriving entire social groups who don't serve of their right to citizenship. This is how Arab or ultra-orthodox Jewish citizens of Israel — who are legally exempted from compulsory enlistment — become second-class citizens. It is by pointing at this fact that the state explains its discriminatory practices toward them. Other groups, for instance the Arabic Bedouin or the Druze, appeal to the fact that they enlist in support of their demand for equal citizenship. As Arabs, they are indeed better socially accepted than their non-serving counterparts. Similarly, there are relatively many gay men who quote how they have made their “contribution to shouldering the burden of national security” when trying to justify their right to equal citizenship and when demanding recognition as a legitimate group in Israeli society. Israeli society, therefore, was founded, and continues to be based, on military service as an entry ticket for citizenship and adult participation in Israeli society.

On Women, Military Service, and Citizenship in Zionist Society — A Historical Perspective

It is, to begin with, important to have some idea about the context of the encounter between the Israeli feminist movement and the army, as well as society at large. Women received the right to vote in the various institutions of the Zionist movement even before the foundation of the state. Women's participation in society was defined according to the socialist model that put the individual's contribution to the collective as its central value. Women were seen to constitute, in their own way, an equal part of that contribution. The notion of the female pioneer was integral to the Zionist enterprise. At the same time, as a result of women's own activism, they were also included in the Zionist community's first combatant bodies that preceded the Israeli army — the paramilitary Palmakh and the Haganah. With the establishment of the state and the Israeli army their compulsory service was self-evident. Nevertheless, it was decided as early as the Independence War — especially now that the army had become a true “people's army”, including not only, as it had before, the more liberal pioneers — to create the women's forces, which would include the various tasks that were suitable for women, and to stop allowing women to serve in combatant roles. At the same time the exemption from compulsory military service for religious women was instituted, so that these women would not be forced, against their religious principle, into mixed work conditions with men. A considerable percentage of women in Israel were exempted from military service through this channel. From a contemporary, critical perspective, women in the early period of the Zionist movement can already be seen to be excluded from significant functions, and we can identify a conservative gender ideal of the woman as mother and educator who makes it possible for her husband to go out, build the land and participate in the country's wars. Nevertheless, for many years, the society was dominated by a relatively egalitarian ethos according to which women, though kept out of certain important social roles, were still seen as having a significant and, as it were, equal position in Israeli society.

The Feminist Revolution Comes to the Israeli Army

The feminist movement in Israel, for many years, indeed until the 1990s, showed little interest in the subject of military service, and the fact that women are obliged to serve — though not so many of them, and for a shorter time, and performing a limited number of functions. In 1995, a young woman, Alice Miller, appealed to the Supreme Court against the Israeli army and air force and demanded to be allowed to apply for pilot training — a prestigious military training closed to women until then. This legal action rocked gender-relations in the context of Israel's military system. Men's unwillingness to open these highly regarded places to women, because they considered them exclusively theirs, was laid bare, and the local feminist movement realised it had a new point on its agenda. The opportunity for the feminist movement was ideal. Making the army one's reference point in formulating and demanding citizenship and equality can be a formidable tool for action. Women would be able to enter places in the military that had been inaccessible to them hitherto, then to advance to more highly regarded and influential positions in civic society. If women would be truly equal partners in shouldering the burden of security, they would be seen as “more” equal to men — and this in turn would lead to reducing the oppression of women because they were seen as weak, both physically and politically. And like many other movements struggling for political and social rights, the Israeli feminist movement opted to embrace the army, to encourage enlistment, support access to various army functions for women, and, on the whole, struggle for women's rights within the context of military service. Fifteen years later, we now have combatant women and women fighter pilots, and there are more female senior officers than ever. The percentage of women in secretarial roles has dropped, while the percentage of women who actually enlist has significantly risen. So is everything all right, then? Can we really say that the road to women's equality is via high enlistment figures, equal national duty to serve, and women's volunteering to army careers? There are other voices within the feminist movement. Some of these argue that the military system inherently includes sexual harassment as normative practice — something that obviously does not do anything to advance women; others claim that whatever change happened in the army, it has not been true change and should not be accepted as such. The main source of criticism originates in the radical elements of the Israeli feminist movement, which combines its feminist struggle with a struggle against the Occupation and against violence.

A Radical Critique of the Relations between the Army and the Feminist Movement

A more radical feminist approach than the one described above has been taking shape in the last decade. There are groups that have jointly articulated a different way of thinking about the interrelations between the military and the oppression of women as a result of a more inclusive understanding of forms of oppression, and of feminist and antimilitarist activism. These groups — with New Profile taking a central place among them — consider the army, which by definition regards violence and armed combat as a way of solving problems, as also perpetuating a notion of the "warrior" as the ideal, normative man. It is around this figure that an entire social environment emerges, as part of a social process whereby people are persuaded to identify with the role of the fighter. The consecration of combat brings along a consecration of conventional masculinity and physical force. Within the hierarchy of such a military system, women will always feature as the weaker ones physically and they will be allotted inferior positions. This military structure will then impose its values via a stereotypical conception of men, which society conveys through its general socialisation processes. When a social system is constructed on the basis of control (whether this is within the confines of a military hierarchy or enacted towards an occupied population), power and control will characterise interrelations in that society These in turn further entrench patriarchal values in the society that is already dominated by military values — in the family, in the workplace, and in politics. The very same people which the army puts in positions of power, based on a hierarchy of physical prowess, will also tend to accede to such power positions in civil society — and thus they import an entire set of military values which sanctions combat, violence, gender-based hierarchy, and power-based interpersonal relations. These observations have been confirmed by recent research. Thus Dr Orna Sasson-Levi writes in her book Identities in Uniform [1] — based on thorough research she conducted in co-operation with the Israeli army — that women in military combat functions will adopt an alternative masculine identity rather than an alternative feminine identity, which in effect means that they are in denial of their feminine identity. Sasson-Levi identifies a similar pattern among those Israeli men who for some reason are not in harmony with the identity of the “male fighter”. Another study, conducted at Ben Gurion University, explains the failed integration of women into the air force as mainly due to their not having the “mentality” that suits pilots.

Disagreement among Feminists about the Occupation, Army, and Violence

We may learn a lot from our behaviour, both as individuals and as members of a group, in situations when there is a clash between two components of our identity. A split has occurred within Israel's feminist movement over our stance toward the Occupation, the army and violence. This shows, in my opinion, that the part of our identity that consists in our attitude towards violence is more important to our sense of self-identity than that associated with the feminist struggle. On either side of the conflicting attitudes toward the Occupation, we see women who tend to co-operate with those who, although opposing the feminist struggle, identify with their attitudes towards use of violence and the army. It is against the background of this complex state of affairs that women's refusal in Israel calls into question a variety of myths — prevalent in the feminist movement on one hand, and in the resistance against the Occupation and the army on the other.

Women's Refusal in Israel — Facing the Army and Facing the Refusal Movement

For many years, women's refusal in Israel overlapped with the debate over issues concerning women's enlistment. The legal clause concerning exemption of religious women from compulsory military service was formulated in a way that could include exemption on any conscientious grounds — whether religious or otherwise — and it was relatively easy for young women to procure such an exemption. Hence, until 2002, there are only few recorded cases of women who were sentenced for refusal — or were, alternatively, forced to enlist against their will. Women refusers were part of activist groups against military enlistment, but they usually did not act in direct confrontation with the army like the men who refused publicly and were imprisoned or dragged into a legal struggle. The women therefore remained outside the public debate on the issue. All this changed with the 2001 Seniors' Letter (see the letter printed in full elsewhere in this chapter) both as regards the army's attitude to women, and as regards the women's stance vis-a-vis the refusal movement and their own role in it. Protest against the place of women in the refusal movement came from the women themselves. The large group of female activists who were involved in this process felt that the power relations within the refusal community were replicating the oppressive gendered patterns of power distribution in society. Women who were active in this period say: “While women in mainstream society stand on the sidelines and wave at their heroic male fighters, we stood at the prison gates, waving at our heroes as they went into jail. We stayed stuck in the role of eternal supporters and caregivers. Our own refusal took second place to our support of their refusal.” Young women activists from the Seniors' Letter, in collaboration with New Profile, started collecting women's testimonies about their refusal; they organised a study day dedicated to women's refusal, and generally began to speak out about women's refusal. The women's rejection of their role caused much friction in the refusal movement. Unfortunately change, when it came, did not happen as a result of the success of feminist values, but simply as a result of a change of army policy regarding refusal. At the very same time that scores of refusers were being jailed for periods stretching between two months and two years, the army was conducting a lengthy legal procedure against five male refusers at the military court. Haggai Matar, one of these five jailed refusers, had submitted a letter explaining his conscientious objection against enlistment in the Israeli army which was almost identical to a letter written by Hadas Goldman, who had obtained an exemption on grounds of conscience. Haggai and his fellow refusers appealed against the discrimination between men and women in cases of exemption on grounds of conscientious objection. The military authorities reacted by tightening the criteria for what qualified as female conscientious objection and from this point on they started putting women who refused to serve and referred to the Occupation into jail. One of the first young women who was jailed as a result was Laura Milo, who appealed to the Supreme Court against the Minister of Defence. Subsequently an outrageous court ruling stated that an exemption on grounds of conscience should only be given for religious reasons. In practice, what this meant was that the treatment of women, in the case of conscientious objection, was made equal to that of men. Another Supreme Court ruling forced the army to regulate its routines around the so-called conscience committee and make them release men and women only for reasons of total pacifism, rejecting any other form of conscientious objection (like, for instance, refusal due to the Occupation, or indeed any articulation of pacifism that did not strike the committee as absolute). These developments brought significant change to the map of declared refusal in Israel, requiring women to face a rigid conscience committee. While many still choose to appear before the conscience committee and thus avoid imprisonment, we witness scores of female and male refusers who — in the main — make it their choice to tie their imprisonment to the anti-Occupation campaign.

Idan Halili — Feminist Refuser

Having been declined a hearing at the army's conscience committee, Idan Halili presented herself at the national induction centre and declared her refusal to serve in the Israeli army in October 2005. Idan wrote a four-page letter, detailing the feminist conscientious reasons why she refused to enlist. Among her arguments were, that a feminist approach clashes with violent ways of solving problems; that the military system actually harms women, within the army and in society at large, and that by her feminist thinking, the notion of equality achieved by means of military service is not a serious and valid approach to questions of equality. After spending two weeks in jail, Idan was allowed — after all — to appear before the army's conscience committee. The committee chose not to exempt her on grounds of conscience, since Idan did not prove she was a pacifist, but let her go due to incompatibility. Idan's refusal gained sympathetic responses from the feminist movement in Israel, including both its radical and less radical parts, who all identified with her criticism of the army's role in the oppression of women. Once she was released from jail, Idan voiced her disapproval of the tendency to turn those who go to jail into heroes as a way of adding legitimacy to their political statement.

Female Refusers in Jail

Six women were jailed for refusal to enlist in the course of the summer of 2008 — two more are on their way at the time of writing this. The Seniors' Letter of 2008 includes mostly women. Unlike so far, the army now is very reluctant to release women refusers once they have been jailed, or to exempt them from military service. These women therefore go in and out of jail for long periods of time. Because this most recent group of high school seniors includes so many young women, their letter attracted more than the usual amount of media attention. Society's attitude towards young women with a vocal social agenda is kinder than towards young men, who are expected to take their responsibility for the security of Israel more seriously. As things stand currently, the nonviolent feminist movement's major mission is to look for non-heroic forms of refusal, forms that do not rely on the figure of the — either male or female — hero and on an ethic of self-sacrifice. Our movement must be able to offer an alternative to the conventional public discourse which so strongly builds on a notion of heroism, as well as to our own tendency to include the ethics of self-sacrifice in our political struggle. Thanks to Mirjam Hadar for translation from Hebrew to English


[1] Orna Sasson-Levy, 2006. Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and femininities in the Israeli Military, Jerusalem: Eshkolot series, Magnes Press, and Tel Aviv: Migdarim Series, Hakibutz Hameucahd Press (in Hebrew).

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology