Women and the Israeli Defense Forces

Would have posted this a little earlier but the non-writing life got in the way. Being on a couple of private military-oriented email lists, I get a fair amount of traffic on various aspects of the subject. One piece of which was an AP article noting that the Israeli Defense forces (IDF) have convened a commission to study whether or not women should be admitted to the infantry, armor, and special operations. (It should be noted that Israeli women already serve as light infantry/border guards.)

Two fascinating aspects of the article: American opponents of opening the combat arms to servicewomen used to say, the Israelis don’t do it, so we shouldn’t either. The reasons they don’t have far more to do with the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, who have political and religious clout all out of proportion to either their numbers or popularity in Israeli society, than anything to do with women, the military or war. Now, the experience of the US military with women increasingly serving in the small infantry, armor (especially when used as dismounted infantry) and special operations units from which they are legally barred, is being held up as an example: look, the sky hasn’t fallen.

And second, the Israeli “feminists” saying things like, “People ask me, do you really want your daughter to serve in a unit like that? Well, I want my daughter to be able to decide, just like your son.” (To a great extent, of course, the ability to choose one’s risks and virtues for ourselves is important. But that is not the whole issue.)

In the fall of 2005, Idan Halili refused to be inducted into the Israeli army, arguing that:

A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality, on the one hand, and the superiority of male-identified values on the other. …

The logic gets worse from there. “Feminist” women must not go into the Army because it will treat them badly (Israel is in fact a strongly patriarchal society, although it is light-years better than any Arab country), blah, blah, blah. And Halili was defended by “feminist” women.

I say “feminist” rather than feminist, because the historic and moral taks of feminism has been to make women human for more than reproduction and citizens for more than paying taxes and transmitting citizenship to their sons.

Given the instability of the Middle East and the constant, real danger to Israel, as well as Israeli women’s very genuine stake in the survival of their society, the feminist—the politically and morally serious—position is actually along the lines of, This is our nation and our military. As part of the community to be defended, we have the inalienable right and responsibility to engage in the common defense—and not take any crap from anyone for doing so. (One could say much the same about American feminism.)

Yet it is a fact that those who say (and sometimes genuinely are) they are committed to women’s equality are often very uneasy, if not outright hostile, to those women who are willing to bear arms and use them effectively in the common defense. Never mind that these women are acting on the belief that their lives and the lives of other women (and their male compatriots) are worth the lives of men trying to kill them.

Perhaps they feel reproached by these servicewomen (even though they rarely, in fact, do reproach women who have made different choices).

Perhaps they are right to feel reproached.


2 thoughts on “Women and the Israeli Defense Forces”

  1. Hi Erin,

    Through the Minerva List I saw your posting in your blog and of course I was very curious as to what you wrote about Israel. Being one of the “founding mothers” of the feminist movement in Isrsel and having written my dissertation about Women’s Military Service in Israel 1948-1967, I tottally agree with you that if all citizens are required to conscript to the military, women are citizens as well. In our society were , symbolically the value of army service is less valued today, but the value of an army career is still a valuable symbol our society, therefore the importance of inclusion of women in the military. Many of my feminist friends do not agree, saying our Military is a chauvenistic opressing Military, which is in a way true, still I think we need to share the burden being Israeli citizens if we demand equality . Thank you for your nice comments about Israel.

  2. Nurit:

    Nice to “meet” you.

    Being an American, I see Israel living in a very rough neighborhood, absorbing a great deal of that roughness—but shockingly less than I would expect. My heart goes out to both Israelis, who must be weary unto death of this eternal conflict and hostility, and also to the Palestinians, who despite their self-destructive penchant are abandoned by their Arab brethren.

    As for all the rest about women in the military—equality means equality of responsibility as well as equality of rights. But that ain’t a blank check for abuse and disrespect. And, forgive me for asking the harsh question, if Israel goes down, what happens to Israeli women? One might say they have an even greater stake in the survival of Israel than Israeli men.

    Best to you and yours,

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