'One of the boys': the conscription of young women to the Israeli military

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Sahar Vardi

Israel has had, since its creation, mandatory military service for both men and women. It prides itself, both internally and externally, on its relatively gender-equal military in which women can both contribute to their society just as men can, and get an opportunity to prove their worth. The apparent gender equality presented by the military provokes a particular feminist perspective on the conscription of women. One could assume that in a country with compulsory conscription, convincing young people about the importance of – and their personal interest in – serving in the military is unnecessary. Yet in fact, in Israel, like many conscript societies, the promotion of the military and of the enlistment of young people happens in a variety of ways. When I was about eleven or twelve my brother had a poster in his room of a female combat soldier in training, carrying a male soldier on her back, simulating an evacuation of an injured comrade in battle. At the time I made up my mind that I wanted to be a combat soldier; I wanted to prove to the men, but maybe more so to myself, that I could do the same things as them. The girl in the poster seemed to prove that. At more or less at the same age I also knew that I was against the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinians - that violence was not something that I would like to promote in any way. But the appeal of having an opportunity to really prove myself as equal to men in this very male-dominated field was stronger. With time, I grew out of this, as my understanding of feminism and equality developed. There are still times, however, when on an emotional level I get the same feelings, and sense the same admiration (maybe even envy) towards those women combat soldiers 'taking on' the men. Historically, the heroisation of combatants has usually overlooked women. While feminist and anti-militarism movements tried to challenge the concept of heroisation, it seems the Israeli military has tried to promote participation of women in combat, at least for appearances. The conscription of women to the Israeli military is not only another part of universal conscription in Israel – and of the sentiment that 'everyone goes' – but is also specifically highlighted as a policy based on, and promoting, gender-equality. An official Israeli Defence Force (IDF) video from 2009 on the involvement of women expresses the same sentiment - that women can be equal to men if they join.[1] An article from the mainstream Israeli news website Mako entitled '50 things you didn't know about the Israeli Defense Force [IDF]'[2], written by a female reporter, reveals:

  • Israel is the only country in the world with mandatory military service for women.[3] Today women make 34% of the military, and 88% of the roles are open to them. A quarter of the officers in the IDF are women.
  • In the past women were not allowed to serve on navy ships, but during the last sailors' training course the status of 'excellent sailor' was given to a woman.
  • Karakal regiment is the only mixed regiment in the IDF, and both men and women combatants serve in it. There are no exceptions: the girls do Basic Training 07 (combat training), and carry MAG and Negev machine guns, and stretchers, just like any [male] combatant in the IDF.

Young female IDF field intelligence soldiers, 2011 (credit – Israel Defence Forces)Young female IDF field intelligence soldiers, 2011 (credit – Israel Defence Forces) This illusion of equality has two purposes. The first is to motivate young women to serve, showing them that the military is a place for them to prove that they can be equal to men in their duties and performance. The fact that hundreds of soldiers complain about sexual harassment in the military every year, and, according to military research in 2002, 80% of female soldiers were sexually harassed during their service, somehow does not make it into the top 50. The second purpose of this illusion of equality is part of the legitimisation of the military, for itself as well as for the rest of Israeli society and the international community. The Israeli military prides itself on being 'the most moral military in the world'.[4] This phrase is especially used to legitimise the IDF during combat, saying that because Israeli soldiers act in the most moral way possible considering the circumstances, the civilian casualties, injuries and damage to property during 'military operations', must be justifiable. After the attack on Gaza in 2009 (Operation Cast Lead) the then-Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak responded to testimonies by soldiers regarding the harm caused to civilians by asserting: We have the most moral military in the world. I spent tens of years in uniform, I know what happened in Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and I tell you that from the chief of staff until the last soldier, the most moral military in the world stands at the disposal of the Israeli government. I have no doubt every specific incident will be looked into.[5] But to maintain this perception, the IDF must appear to have a higher moral standard than that of the people it fights against, not only on the front line but also at the level of its core values. For this reason, the conscription of women and the illusion of equality for women inside the military system, together with the conscription of homosexuals and bisexuals, give the IDF the moral highground – when it comes to 'Western' values – compared to any other military in the world, and especially in the Middle East. And so the Israeli military and Israeli society can celebrate the compulsory conscription of woman as a progressive next step for women's liberation. The other side of this is that the women’s peace movement in Israel has been a dominant voice in the general peace movement for decades, and has managed to use their unique voice as women to influence policies. Interestingly, at times this was also done by using a role which such a militaristic society allowed women to dominate – that of a caring mother of a soldier – to demand the end of war and the return home of the soldiers. This strategy was employed effectively by the movement 'Four Mothers', which was instrumental in the final retreat of Israeli from Lebanon in 2000.[6] Other feminist peace movements took a different path, questioning the role given to them as supporters and educators of future soldiers, and formed groups such as Women in Black, New Profile, the Coalition of Women for Peace and many more, all trying to give a clear, ongoing feminist voice against the occupation and the militarisation of Israeli society. In 2005 Idan Halili, a nineteen-year-old Israeli woman, declared her refusal to serve in the military saying: A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality and the superiority of male-identified values. ... It might be said that a mood of sexual harassment is endemic in the army. And so the demand that a woman enlist is tantamount to demanding that she cope with sexual harassment. I as a feminist, feel I must avoid military service and act to limit and reduce the influence of the army on civic society. Today, we members of Israeli feminist movements working towards the demilitarisation of Israeli society must constantly provide a feminist alternative voice, both underlining the inherent patriarchy in the military and its effect on women, as well as presenting our alternative – a feminist voice for peace.

Notes

[1] CNN, 'Israeli Army', 17 September 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Joh1NkEfqJ4 (accessed September 2012).

[2] Hadas Duvdevani, '50 things you didn't know about the IDF', Mako, 3 June 2012. http://www.mako.co.il/pzm-magazine/Article-c07be6a8371b731006.htm (accessed September 2012).

[3] In fact Eritrea has it too.

[4] This phrase has been repeated by numerous Israeli politicians and generals, including, in recent years: former Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Ehud Barak, former military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and many more. [

5] Shahar Ilan and Fadi Iadath, 'Barak: we have the most moral military, every incident will be investigated', Haaretz News, 20 March 2009. http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1251460 (accessed September 2012).

[6] Four Mothers: http://www.4mothers.org.il/peilut/backgrou.htm (accessed September 2012).