Rela Mazali

The first lecture I ever gave on the subject of parenting in a state that practices conscription began with the sentence: “When my daughter was born, I could allow myself a sigh of relief that I couldn’t take when each of my sons was born.” This was in 1991. Reading this opening sentence today, I cringe.
A majority of Jewish parents in Israel fail to see girls’ future military service as a threat in any way comparable to the threat faced by boys. This is so, despite the very real, though insidious, threats facing women soldiers and young women in general. In my view, even the feminist movement in Israel, and within it the feminist peace and anti-militarist movement, under-emphasizes this fact. I see this as one of the deeply embedded conceptual binds that underlie militarization and war. Taking a look at how discourse in Israel, including feminist discourse, is gendered and circumscribed by the culture of war, I’ll ask “And what about the girls?”
Carol Cohn, a feminist scholar who studied the discourse of nuclear scientists, described a process through which independent thinking is blocked. In her article: “Wars, Wimps and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” in Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (eds.), Gendering War Talk (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), she followed the practices making it dangerous, emotionally loaded, and practically impossible to cross the conventional and prescribed boundaries of a field of discourse:

Certain ideas, concerns, interests, information, feelings, and meanings are marked in national security discourse as feminine, and are devalued. They are therefore, first, very difficult to speak …. And second, they are very difficult to hear, to take in and work with seriously, even if they are said. … What gets left out degrades our ability to think well and fully. (pp. 231–232)

In Israel, many, if not all, conventional fields of discourse are rooted in its culture of war. Within this culture, social priorities and the allocation of resources are dictated by militarized patterns of thought and action. Such patterns include the presuppositions, made unawares and therefore never seriously debated to date, that war is imposed upon, rather than chosen by, the Israeli state; that it is unavoidable, much like natural disaster; and that it is a reasonable, acceptable, though unfortunate means of securing political ends. These are the presuppositions delineating the limits of what is said and thought, and no less, the substance of what is left out. In a cyclic pattern, processes of knowledge-building within the culture of war tend to reinforce these presuppositions, to rely on, and thus implicitly affirm, what goes without saying. Convention, canons, accepted norms of evidence and argument, and habit all converge to circumscribe and maintain these zones, and accordingly delineate what is considered (if at all) superfluous as a topic of discussion, study, or action.
My lecture in 1991 proposed a highly unorthodox and dissenting view: that boys’ conscription in Israel was a socially required rite of passage more than a security measure; that conscription was a means of social control of both youths and parents, no less than a mechanism of defense; and that it was part of a process perpetuating rather than solving conflict. But my opening sentence still firmly observed some of the crucial limits placed by the war culture upon thinking.
When my sons were born I actually did perceive them, instantaneously, as future soldiers. Over the years I would find myself increasingly questioning and opposing this future role. But the image, and the terror it struck in me, formed and guided even my growing opposition. Implicit in my emotional approach to my infant and growing sons was a central “fighter” image, introducing “life-or-death” themes which cast a “larger-than-life” shadow, arousing excitement, eliciting a grave, respectful tone. These meanings resonated in my opening sentence. And they were shared by, and totally obvious to, my entire audience. All my listeners – some with brimming eyes – appreciated that I was petrified for my sons and relatively free of fear for my daughter.
In point of fact, “fighters,” form a small percentage of the Israeli military. Stewart Cohen, a scholar of military-social processes in Israel, reported in 1997 that they constituted 20% of the manpower in the Israel Defense Force (“Towards a New Portrait of the [New] Israeli Soldier,” Israeli Affairs, 3–4 (1997), pp. 77–117). In addition, well over 25% of the male candidates for conscription fail to enlist every year.2 Consequently, “fighters” amount to 15% at most, far less than a fifth, of the population of young Jewish men in Israel. In addition, while 20% of the soldiers are fighters, only a small percentage of these are subsequently injured, killed, or severely mentally damaged. There is, then, a limited factual basis for the high drama of fearing for every son as if he were destined to risk or lose his life as a future “fighter.” There are arguably comparable grounds to fear for a son (or daughter) as a potential casualty in a car crash.
But the powerful “fighter” image, so central to masculine identity in Jewish Israeli society, totally obscures and marginalizes these statistics. Emotionally, boys are treated as “fighters,” and the danger implied in the term – usually perceived and represented as a service to society – arouses a sense of deep respect if not awe. This is so even for (most of) those parents who believe the danger to be unnecessary and unjustified, and who act to resist it. My own oppositional activism tended to adopt the solemn emotional tone that is usually attached to military deaths. My resistance was colored by the convention that views such deaths as the ultimate sacrifice, a convention placing fighters on a pedestal above others. This image and the associated emotions were precisely what I brought into play with my opening sentence.
As feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe explained in her book The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the end of the Cold War (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993):

Combat continues to have an ideological potency, in large measure because it is wielded as a criterion to divide ‘the men from the boys’ – and, more recently, the men from the women. (p. 56)

While I was already a declared feminist in 1991, I had only begun to think and read and hear about the intricate interdependence between militarization and sexism. As a result, the presuppositions underpinning my talk still blinded me to the self-evident fact that my society places girls at risk no less than boys, though the risks are of a somewhat different nature, and that this is true of the military in particular.
In 1996, the Israel Women’s Network reported that one in three women in Israel is the victim of a sexual assault in the course of her life. According to the joint findings of the rape crisis centers in Israel, 75% of the women who sought their services between 1992 and 1994 were 25 years old or younger. In other words, a predominant proportion of the victims reporting sexual assault are roughly the same age as most of the active “fighters,” and they comprise a similar if not higher proportion of the population in that age group. As I’ve already mentioned, though, not all “fighters” necessarily incur injuries or damages. All rape victims, of course, have sustained severe injury, both physical and mental. A 2001 survey conducted by the Geocartography Institute and reported in the daily newspaper Ma‘ariv by Ziva Mugrabi (February 2, 2002) found that 9% of all working women in Israel said they had been sexually harassed in 2001 alone. A majority of the women reporting harassment were aged 18 to 24. The newer finding on harassment, then, is fully consistent with the earlier data on rape. These statistics clearly place army age women in the group most at risk of sexual assault, harassment, and rape in Israel.
Statistics regarding sexual assault and harassment within the army were publicized by the Israeli military for the first time, on June 2, 2003. The study was conducted by “Yoalan,” the Branch of the Consultant to the Chief of Staff on Women’s Status in the Military, and presented to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. I am concluding work on this article near the end of the same month. To date, these data have generated almost no public interest and very little media coverage. I find this striking in and of itself. The IDF is a national organization in which most of the women are at an age that places them at high risk for sexual assault. Yet the Israeli public, its administration, and, in the main, its academic institutions have yet to pose focused questions about the scope and forms of violence against women in this organization. The sole exceptions that I know of to date, in feminist academia, are parts of Susan Sered’s book, What Makes Women Sick?: Maternity, Modesty and Militarism in Israeli Society (Hanover and London: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2000), and a few passages in Orit Kamir’s book, Feminism, Rights and the Law (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense [!], 2002; in Hebrew).
Besides the vulnerable age group of most women in the army, the military is a particularly pertinent locus to examine for violence against women, as it is the one of the main generators creating and maintaining masculine superiority in Israeli society. As feminist sociologist Orna Sasson-Levy described it:

The dominance of … hegemonic masculinity is preserved by employing a dual mechanism of inclusion of different groups through mandatory conscription, and at the same time, their marginalization to peripheral occupations within the army. Through this dual mechanism … the state ensures the loyalty and identification of the soldiers from non-hegemonic groups [the first of which she identifies as women], while at the same time maintaining their marginalization within the army and the state. (“Constructions of Gender Identity within the Israeli Army,” Ph.D. dissertation, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, November 2000, abstract, p. xiv).

Cynthia Enloe, reflecting on a U.S. organization of military and ex-military men, remarked:

The ethos is masculine; but for that very reason women’s participation has been an essential ingredient. … Without women to objectify … these men’s military service would be less confirming of their manhood, perhaps even of their citizenship. (Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, California University Press, 2000, p. 195)

As many feminist analyses have shown clearly over the years, sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment are part of the machinery of women’s intimidation and marginalization. If the military is one of the main sites in Israel in which women’s second-class status is implemented, it would be logical to suspect that such practices might be widespread within it. Corroborating this hypotheses indirectly, Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which is closely linked with its military and often staffed by ex-military men, was found in 2000 to be the government ministry in which the highest rate of sexual harassment was reported. Attorney Rivka Shaked, Commissioner of Women’s Status and Advancement in the Civil Service, is quoted in an article by Ethan Rabin (Ma‘ariv, Weekend Supplement, August 25, 2000) as saying:

Twenty-five percent of all the plaintiffs who reported to me in the past year come from the Ministry of Defense. Most of the charges came from women soldiers, a particularly vulnerable population. Both because it is low-ranking and due to its young age. (translation mine – R.M.)

The article also quotes Shmuel Hollander, the Civil Service Commissioner, who, mainly due to the levels of harassment, wrote to the Head of Manpower in the army requesting a reduction in the number of women conscripts who are regularly “loaned” to the ministry. The army refused.
According to Sered,

Sexual harassment of women soldiers … in the IDF … is so widespread as to be all but unremarkable. … Moreover, it seems to be the case that sexual harassment is seen as a problem that women in the IDF need to learn to cope with, rather than as a practice that men need to learn to refrain from. (What Makes Women Sick, p. 91)

Or as Kamir put it:

The army is the place where many women and men in Israel learn how to behave with each other. In past the army was the main arena where men learned to sexually harass and women learned to accept harassment. (Feminism, Rights and the Law, p. 20; translation mine – R.M.)

Kamir provided only limited grounds for the hope she went on to express that this arena is currently undergoing significant change.
So far, for its part, the feminist movement in Israel has addressed these issues to a very limited degree and has barely begun to look at sexual assault and harassment within the army. Naamat, the women’s affiliate of the National Labor Federation, has publicized specific data regarding reports of sexual harassment in the army (http://www.naamat.org.il/themes/default.asp?PageId=7). As evidence of growing awareness of the problem, and improved army handling of it, Naamat cites a rise from 230 sexual harassment charges by women soldiers in 1997 to 280 charges in 1998. However, according the findings recently published by the IDF, over 50% of those who said they were harassed took no action in response. The study saw this as evidence of women’s lack of faith in the army’s treatment of harassment complaints. The findings presented to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, actually demonstrated a decline in the volume of complaints submitted in recent years, with numbers dropping from 390 complaints in 1998 to 217 in 2002.
While the “Yoalan” study is very recent, sufficient evidence was available earlier too to indicate that the numbers quoted by Naamat were drastically low. Well over twenty thousand young women enlist every year,3 at what is apparently the most high-risk age for sexual assault, rape, and harassment. Sered quoted a 1993 newspaper article (from Ma‘ariv) placing the number of sexual harassment cases in the IDF at about one thousand a year, only 10% of which “reach the level where they are investigated.” (p. 92), and as stated, in 2002, 9% percent of all working women reported experiences of harassment in a single year. Also, notably, feminist researchers throughout the world view the number of reported incidents of harassment as a fraction of the real total. The satisfied, even self-congratulatory tone of Naamat’s material seems misplaced at best, and gravely misleading at worst.
According to the recently published (Yediot Acharonot, June 3, 2003) findings of the IDF study, then, 20% of women in the army said they experienced sexual harassment. However, when the term ‘sexual harassment’ was broken down into its various components, the incidence turned out to be up to 4 times higher. 81% reported having been exposed to humiliating innuendo, 69% had been exposed to unwanted sexual proposals, 52% had experienced embarrassing touching, 26% had been promised rewards for sexual favors, 19% had been exposed to embarrassing body exhibition by soldiers, 8% had been threatened to secure their consent to sex, 7% had been sexually assaulted.
Suspicions that the number of reports on harassment in the IDF is unrealistically low are upheld by the findings published by yet another security organization – the Israeli police force. According to a study conducted in 2000, 92.4%(!) of the women working in the police force said they had been sexually harassed on the job. An article by Baruch Kara reporting these findings (Haaretz, November 12, 2000) ends as follows:

One of the conclusions is that the prevalence of sexual harassment … has to do, first and foremost, with the age gap between the senior clerks and the female employees … some of whom are doing mandatory service with the police [that is, they are conscripts “on loan” from the army]. The implication is that intensive contact between young women and mature clerks should be prevented. (translation mine – R.M.)

Obviously, the same type of hierarchies, age gaps, and power structures are at work in the military, no less, if not more, intensively. For instance, the Naamat report on the military states, somewhat laconically, that “Most of the harassers were commanders.” According to the “Yoalan” study, 33% of the harassers were commanders, while the study also found that women tended more to classify similar conduct by soldiers and commanders as harassment when performed by the latter.
Israeli society and its elite groups have effectively maintained the rule of fighters and fathers for many years. A vastly disproportionate number of leading politicians, among them the present and former Prime Ministers, are ex-military men. According to the feminist analysis in which I believe, this militarized, patriarchal society, led by its elites, in fact engenders and encourages violence against women in both covert and less covert ways. The girls and women who become the victims of this violence are forced into an exploitative “mission” by group(s) with a vested interest in maintaining women’s intimidation, in keeping them relatively frightened, hesitant, “in their place.” The prevalence of such violence and the endemic fear of it keep not only the direct victims but the entire population of women intimidated and “in place” to some degree.
I believe this to be true of every patriarchal society, not only Israel’s. Israel, however, is a state that both engages in continuous warfare and practices conscription (of both women and men, if they’re Jewish and secular). This has specific implications for the ways in which women and men are (differently) socialized and perceived. Some of these implications involve particular aspects of the public perception of violence against women.
Where men’s ostensibly elective military mission – in the service of the state – is lauded and valorized, the rape, harassment, and sexual assault of women – in the service of male supremacy – are explained away as individual bad luck, at best, or the victim’s fault, at worst. A disappearing of the social causes and benefits of the violence and risks facing women occurs in all patriarchal societies. However, in Israel, because women’s forced mission is denied and hidden, the specific, possibly enhanced risk that they face as young conscripts is almost totally erased and disregarded. Meanwhile, in contrast, the risk faced by young men conscripts is perceived as much enhanced, and every boy is seen as a future combat soldier, granting him, at least potentially, “the preferred status of ‘good citizen,’” as Sasson-Levy puts it (p. xiii). This double move – of magnifying the risk facing boys through, and along with, an erasure of the risk facing girls – was duplicated and reinforced in my opening sentence of 1991.
In addition, I was obliterating and delegitimizing my personal experiential knowledge, my own shameful sense of sexual harassment in (and outside of) the army. Sexual harassment, both in the army and elsewhere, does not necessarily or exclusively comprise direct, unwanted sexual advances by superiors, colleagues, etc. As has been well documented by feminist scholars, it also takes the myriad daily forms of “horsing around” by young and older men, of supposedly humorous remarks, pats, pinches, and winks. In the military in particular, it is effected through men’s repeated, loud, obnoxious, almost compulsory presentation of themselves as “horny,” making many young women in the vicinity constantly uncomfortable and embarrassed. My talk entirely suppressed the reality of these practices and this atmosphere, the pain and humiliation of experiencing them as a young woman, before I even knew how to name them or clearly recognize them for what they were.
Many Israeli feminist organizations still fail (or refuse) to address the central role of the military, and of sexual harassment in the army, in establishing and maintaining women’s second class citizenship. Most of them adhere to the mindset framed by a militarized leadership and upholding its continued rule – the belief that “we have no choice,” that war and fighting are imposed upon, not chosen by, Israeli leaders. On these terms, the military – and its soldiers – are perceived predominantly as a protective force, which, despite its loss of status in recent years, is still to some extent above criticism or question. Women(-and-children – in the format coined by Cynthia Enloe) are perceived as the main “protected” party. Recognizing the degree to which women are at risk from and within the army itself would dangerously undermine this construct.
In addition, due to exclusionary practices, many women and women’s organizations believe they lack sufficient knowledge of “security matters” to voice serious criticism of the army. In this vicious cycle, the institution that may be the most central to the production of women’s second-class status in Israel is taken by many women to be beyond the scope of their critical scrutiny, precisely because they are second-class citizens. They internalize their exclusion from supposedly privileged knowledge and refrain from voicing opinions on army-related issues.
Analogously, to date, even feminist peace organizations have almost totally ignored the issues of sexual assault and harassment in the army. In addition to and consistently with this, they have barely addressed the growing movement of young women who resist military service on grounds of conscience. Neglect of the latter phenomenon stems from the same militarist-sexist assumptions that my 1991 sentence reflected. Young women’s conscription and military service, and, accordingly, young women’s conscientious objection are seen as not really important, not “real,” and definitely not dangerously exciting. A woman CO, unlike a male conscientious objector, is not an inversion of the brave fighter figure. And anyway, such reasoning runs, women are allowed to refuse and (usually) don’t have to go to jail. There’s no drama involved.
The feminist, anti-militarist movement within which I am active receives a steady flow of inquiries from young women who set out to resist conscription.4 Secular Jewish women in Israel are obliged to enlist for mandatory military service at age 18. But unlike secular Jewish men, they are legally entitled to an exemption from military service on grounds of conscience. This right is not made public, and no clear and easily accessible information about it is made available by any state authority. It is hard to spot the mention made of it, in passing, in the deluge of material sent by the army and other state agencies to young women (and men) pending their future enlistment. And, of course, there is no information on what practical steps must be taken in order to realize this right. In the course of our efforts to redress this lack, it became very obvious to us (though we did not systematically collect statistics) that more and more young women are realizing their right to resist army service on grounds of conscience.
However, even our self-defined feminist, anti-militarist movement places far more emphasis on supporting the men who resist military service. After over four years of activity, we are only now beginning systematic collection of these young women’s accounts of their experience and a systematic campaign to bring to public knowledge the growing movement of women’s resistance. Since compiling the information package, we have not made any attempt to challenge the problematic procedures to which young women are subject on their way to obtaining exemptions. These 16–17 year olds are required to report, alone and unaccompanied, to a committee of some five senior military officers, usually all men. The committee often humiliates and bullies them with provocative and insulting questions, sometimes resorting to emotional blackmail, such as, “All your friends will serve and you’ll do nothing? That’s selfishness, not pacifism …” While we have helped several young men challenge the workings of the notorious “military conscience committee” in the High Court of Justice, we have yet to take any comparable steps with regard to young women.
What I’m trying to bring into view here is the fact that living within a war culture, the consciousness of each and every member of society is militarized to some degree. The presuppositions, what gets left out, what goes without saying, what remains unseen, are prescribed, circumscribed, by a deeply militarized socialization. The process of identifying and peeling off the militarized filters through which I have learned to see reality is possibly unending. I see this process as one of the most crucial aspects of my/our feminist, anti-militarist, anti-war action.


* The paper is adapted from part of a presentation made in January 2002 at a joint conference of the Women’s Studies departments in Israel’s major universities and the Israel Association of Feminist and Gender Studies.
1. Data regarding the rates of conscription among Israeli youths can be found, among other places, in an article by former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, “Nevertheless A People’s Army,” Haaretz, January 29, 2002.
2. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, (Statistical Annals, 2001, 2.18: Population, by Population Group, Religion, Sex and Age), the number of 18–year-old Jewish women in 2001 was 40,800 (non-Jewish women are not subject to conscription in Israel). According to Amnon Rubinstein (above, note 1), about 60% of Jewish women of army age enlist annually. That would bring the figure of women conscripts for 2001 to about 24,500.
3. New Profile, which I helped establish in 1998, has compiled an information package detailing the legal status of young women who object to service on grounds of conscience. It explains how to navigate the military-bureaucratic maze on the way to realizing this right. The information package, compiled by Attorney Yossi Wolfson and Conscientious Objector Moran Cohen and posted on the New Profile website has served many dozens of young women in the three-some years since its creation. A network of New Profile activists throughout Israel also answer many phone enquiries and often meet with young COs and their parents.