"Someone makes a killing off war": Militarization and Occupation in Israel-Palestine

The following piece is abbreviated, adapted and updated from a keynote speech at the conference: Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, May 5-7, 2001, Chicago.


Military men and institutions enjoy enormous privilege in Israel. Just take a look at the CV's of Israeli Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers. In the past decade, every Chief of Staff of the Israeli army has become a government minister within a year after leaving the army. In the last and the upcoming (2003) elections, both candidates for Prime Minister were/are ex-generals. Security, so-called, is prioritized in the national budget. In 2002, security spending in Israel amounted to 12% percent of the Gross Domestic Product; one of the highest figures in the world. In the US, for instance, it is 3.5%. In the major NATO countries it never exceeded 3%, even at the height of the cold war. Forty percent of Israel’s security budget is spent on the salaries of career soldiers, almost exclusively men, who are entitled to retire with full pension rights at age 45, and who then go on to a second career in politics or business, through the “swinging door” leading from the army to high-power jobs.


These are just a few manifestations of deep-running militarization of society and state in Israel. Jacklyn Cock, author of Women and War in South Africa, wrote, "A distinction should be made between the military as a social institution; militarism as an ideology (the key component of which is an acceptance of organized violence as a legitimate solution to conflict); and militarization as a social process that involves a mobilization of resources for war. Militarization involves both the spread of militarism as an ideology, and an expansion of the power and influence of the military as a social institution."


The expansion of the military requires a belief that military responses to policy issues are sensible, that huge military expenditures are reasonable, that war is always imminent and, in that sense, natural – a kind of ‘law of nature.’ This is a description of the consciousness of a majority of Jews in Israel, to whom war is endemic. Israeli society is used to war, used to expecting it. It is a society for which war has been normalized, made part of the worldscape,  unfailingly seen as imposed from outside, never chosen by the state and society itself. Virginia Woolf called this a war culture. Sara Ruddick, a feminist thinker, wrote, "In Woolf's view war is a predictable expression of the culture in which it is waged." When war is seen as a sort of fact-of-nature, the expectations this creates must almost inevitably perpetuate war. Perceptions feed into reality and vice versa, in a circular process, affecting each other and deepening one track - that of militarized reactions.


Embedded in Israeli perceptions of the conflict are a history of persecution and an experience of genocide, unrelated to any present enemy. These frame policy issues as a zero-sum game, to be totally won or lost, in a dichotomized cognitive structure that underpins militarization. Fed by and drawing on the horrendous facts of the Holocaust, this structure plays a central role in repeatedly generating enemies. ("They" versus "us.") It is the substance of fear, and the source of the truism most central to Israeli war culture: ein breira - there's no other choice. Either fight or die. Other options lie outside the emotional, cognitive scope of collective reality. 


The fundamental dichotomy underlying militarized cognition, and constructing reality in mutually exclusive pairs, is that of gender. As feminist scholar Carol Cohn has explained, the bi-polar construct of gender shapes perception of the world as a series of oppositions, such as: body-soul, culture-nature, ratio-emotion, logic-intuition, etc. The first ‘half’ of each of these pairs is seen or labeled as masculine, and consequently valued, while the second is considered or labeled feminine, and devalued. A large number of analogous pairs inform a consistently dichotomized worldview. Based on the underlying and sweeping dichotomy of gender, this worldview provides an indirect but powerfully emotional means of excluding particular topics and approaches from common discourse, or even from thought and view. Many attitudes or questions are easily dismissed through the use of feminized labels such as ‘naïve,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘hysterical,’ etc. The bi-polar symbol system thus acts as an organizing principle of culture and as an effective mechanism for obstructing both critical scrutiny and the discussion of critical views. Therefore, a feminist, gender sensitive analysis is central to understanding the mechanisms of militarization. 


So, while Israel presently commands one of the world's most awesome armies, and Palestinians are shooting rifles and mortar shells from their proto-state, and smuggling bombs and automatic rifles into Israeli towns, Israel's response is nevertheless framed by the "ein breira" dichotomy - either kill or die, as if the two powers were comparable. Jewish Israelis totally conflate the threat to their personal safety (posed by Palestinian suicide bombers, or gunmen) and the threat facing Israel as a state. Meanwhile, so-called statesmanship in Israel shrinks to planning military moves, and the army Chief of Staff functions as a full-fledged partner in policy decisions. The last fact is symptomatic of the virtually non-existent boundaries between Israeli civic society and the military. 


My friends and I of the New Profile Movement have been looking for years at what we take to be the war culture of Israeli society. We belong to this society. We are formed by it. We care about it deeply and invest an enormous amount of work in trying to make it healthier, saner, safer. Our criticism is the stuff of our hope. And what we're looking at when we analyze war culture is - to a large extent - ourselves.


New Profile is the first political movement in Israel to identify de-militarization as a top priority. We don't advocate disbanding the army. We're pointing out that it occupies an overbearing position, an enormous chunk of resources, and dictates government policy. We've become an army with a state, instead of a state with an army. We need to reduce the hold of the military, and of militarized thinking, on the moves of our country and the courses of our lives. 


In Israel, as in other militarized states, militarization is crucial to maintaining the rule of those in power, and thus to the suppression of minorities. While commonly called "the only democracy in the Middle East," Israel in fact practices systematic discrimination against many minorities. The Palestinian citizens of Israel, promised equal rights by the state’s Declaration of Independence, are the most prominent case in point. The severe human rights abuses of the occupation are the extreme end of a continuum of anti-democratic practices also conducted inside Israel against the Palestinian people. Nineteen percent of Israel's population are Palestinians today. But 19 out of the 23 communities with the highest unemployment in Israel are Palestinian. Of 14 Israeli communities rated lowest on socio-economic measures, 11 are Palestinian. In 2001 over 41% of the Palestinian families inside Israel were living under the poverty line, as opposed to under 18% of Jewish families. In Nazareth, the city with the largest Palestinian population inside Israel, almost one quarter of the population is registered with the welfare services. For every hour of state education for Jewish children, Palestinian children in Israel get an average of eight tenths of an hour, and the state spends about four times as much on educating a Jewish child. The official area of Palestinian municipalities covers only 2.5% of the land. The current Palestinian population of Israel is six times its size in 1948, but the total area of their lands has been cut by half. In about 80% of Israel, Palestinian citizens are prohibited from buying or leasing land. Such data clearly testify to the anti-democratic practices of Israeli governing. They reflect the state’s active maintenance, and indeed construction, of its Palestinian citizens as suspect “others,” as “the enemy.”


In October 2000, Israeli police shot and killed 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel on the pretext of 'riot control'. The police were acting out a de-facto battle-plan, instead of containing civilian demonstrations. The subsequent arrests terrorized the community. Masked policemen entered homes at night. School buses were stopped on the road, and teenagers taken straight into custody. High school students with no prior criminal record were held indefinitely. As a group, Palestinian citizens of Israel are not as severely dehumanized or brutalized as the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza. But this very fact allows both institutions and individuals to claim Israel's supposed democracy. In fact, discrimination and racism are routine and institutionalized. A central pretext for this is the fact that Israel's Palestinian citizens are largely excluded from army service. This makes them legally ineligible for many rights enjoyed by Jews. So military conscription law acts as a powerful mechanism of exclusion, an infrastructure for anti-democratic legislation and practice.


Women are another major group that suffers discrimination in Israel. While the maintenance of militarization depends on making and keeping enemies, it depends no less on the powerful women-and-children construct. This is the feminized complement of the existential threat, that is, the element supposedly in need of protection, the image or dream to be protected. It functions to define and secure the soldier's masculinity by opposition. He is “out,” “at the front,” the feminine is “back home.” Each is assigned a different sphere and plays different roles. Male soldiers’ self-image and willingness to serve is deeply anchored in this dichotomy. This is why maintaining a distribution of labor along the gender divide is crucial to militarized societies, Israel included. 


And such a distribution of labor is clearly evident in Israel. True, secular Jewish women are conscripted into the army in Israel, but the vast majority of women conscripts fulfill service roles. More important, though, the obligatory “horniness” that defines and expresses masculinity in the military, makes army culture an experience of sexual harassment for many young women. As most of them tend to suppress this and opt for silence, the army actually trains Israeli Jewish women for subservience. As a consequence of this and other factors, women's representation in government in Israel is chronically and extremely low; 14.2% of Israel’s parliament were women in 2002, rating it 54th among 124 countries that are monitored internationally for women’s representation in government, and placing it far behind other western democracies.


Other groups disenfranchised and “kept in place,” in similar ways in Israel, include disabled people, poor people, homosexuals and lesbians, new immigrants, migrant workers, Mizrachi Jews. Sociologist Sammy Smoha showed in the 80’s how the army mainstreamed the latter into menial jobs, determining their future as the working class. This is still true of the majority of Mizrachi soldiers. In addition, sociologist Meir Amor, a member of New Profile, has explained the phenomenon of desertion during army service among poor Mizrachi men, as a manifestation of their alienation and a form of social objection to service.


Jewish education in Israel normalizes war and military service, and children are taught to see service as a natural stage of development, while the narratives of holidays and rituals, history curricula, field trips and school ceremonies, all work to instill the "ein breira" truism. And yet, more and more young Israelis are voting with their feet and abstaining from, or objecting to, military service. Every year almost half of the Israeli youth eligible for service either fail to enlist altogether or serve much reduced terms. Surveys show this trend is growing fast. In November 2002 the Commander of Manpower in the army stated that enlistment percentages were steadily dropping, that more and more conscripts were dropping out in the course of service, and that Israel’s military prisons were overflowing with deserters. 


New Profile sees all these as manifestations of a movement of draft resistance. The movement is largely unorganized, carried by individuals, either alone or with small, ad hoc support groups. Strictly speaking, much of it is not politically motivated. It is, rather, driven by young people’s alienation and mistrust of politicians and institutions. They do not believe that there is really “no choice” or that they are truly needed to protect the life of their community.


A tiny but increasingly visible percentage of the draft resistance movement comprises conscientious objectors; young men and women who openly declare their opposition to service in the Israel Defense Force. Given the current number of calls to the resisters’ support network operated by New Profile, and the steadily rising numbers of young C.O.s given prison sentences in 2001-2, there is no doubt that conscientious objection is on the rise. Young women, as well as young men, are resisting military service. There is a growing movement of women draft resisters. It is largely unreported, for it is considered unimportant, reflecting the sexism at the heart of militarization. That women’s service, altogether, is considered unimportant, is evidenced by the fact that women – unlike men – are legally allowed exemptions from the army on grounds of conscience. Though the procedure is not an easy one, more and more young women are choosing it, many of them counseled and supported by New Profile.


New Profile collects and provides information on the draft resistance movement – both on conscientious objectors and abstainers from service, working with both women and men objectors and abstainers. While Israel's elites, whose status is bolstered by persisting militarization, continue to treat the movement as a non-issue, or pathologize it (it’s often called “the motivation problem”) and seek emergency cures, New Profile sees it as evidence that the hold of the militarized belief system is cracking at base level. We act to point out the cracks, to facilitate their emergence, to demand that our society and governments acknowledge them and begin to form alternative, non-militarized solutions to policy issues.


And where does each of you come in? We hope you will tell your own government to stop arming the conflict. World pressure was a major factor in ending South African apartheid. No real pressure has ever been applied to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands. At this point many of us in Israel believe that outside pressure is a crucial, if not the only, hope. Meanwhile, Europe and the US are active participants in Israel's militarization and in the occupation. Most of the weapons involved in the conflict are made by the Western arms industry. Israel-Palestine is a "test site" for these weapons. It's an excellent show-case for other buyers, and it's a huge market. Almost all of the enormous sums of U.S. Aid to Israel is military aid, three quarters of which are earmarked for U.S. suppliers, boosting profits in America's largest industry. An Israeli sewing factory in the poor outlying town of Mitzpeh Ramon, staffed almost exclusively by women, faced shut-down a few years ago, when the tender for IDF uniforms went to U.S. suppliers. 


In a recent poem, feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "Someone, I say, makes a killing off war. You:—I've been telling you, that's the engine driving the free market. Not information, militarization. Arsenals spawning wealth." Arms are the motor of militarization. Please reciprocate the young people inside Israel saying "NO" to the deployment of their bodies and souls, in the service of the occupation. Please join them by saying "NO" to arming it with your own country’s weapons.