Women in Arms

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, December 2, 2010

Israel's core institution is the army. And while the essential function of the army is to protect and defend the country's citizens, it also plays a crucial role in the lives of those who serve in its ranks. Not unlike an American university in this one respect, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the establishment within which young people build character, form social bonds, and start careers.

This is true of women as well as men. Israel is rare among nations in conscripting women into military service. While a significant number are exempted on religious grounds (and a smaller number for reasons of marriage, pregnancy, or children), for those who do serve, personal and career interests may be as much an issue as they are for men—as is, of course, answering the call of duty and honor.

But if women's ambitions may be equivalent to men's, their role in the IDF is not. To begin with, while men are obligated to serve for three years, women normally serve for two.  Also, by and large, women do not serve in combat units. According to some critics, these discrepancies mean that Israel's most ubiquitous and essential institution enshrines and perpetuates a corresponding imbalance when it comes to the distribution of leadership roles within Israeli society.

The IDF is sensitive to such criticisms.  In recent years it has worked at better integrating women soldiers and at creating opportunities for their advancement within the army itself—including through service in field operations and combat units. 

There is, however, a more radical critique of the status of women in the IDF—one whose aims reach far beyond the issues of equality of opportunity. To those advancing this critique, the main problem with the IDF is less that it perpetuates a social imbalance than that it reflects and perpetuates the fundamentally "militaristic character" of Israeli society. Rejecting the idea that Israel's many wars have been conflicts of necessity, imposed from without and unavoidable, these critics insist that, to the contrary, they have been freely chosen conflicts that serve the interests of "male hegemony." In the words of Orna Sasson-Levy, a professor of sociology at  Bar-Ilan University, Israel's "attachment to military solutions reinforce[s] the status of a portion of the men in Israeli society."

Nor are such opinions mere curiosities, a lone and ineffectual voice from the margins. Radical feminist organizations in Israel have often led the opposition to the country's military responses to Palestinian terror operations. One feminist group, New Profile, openly encourages young Israelis to refuse the draft and calls for soldiers already in the army to disobey orders. Still harder to believe is that, since the early years of this decade, some of the most ideologically radical feminists in Israel, including Sasson-Levy herself, have been employed at the heart of the IDF itself, advising the chief of staff on women's issues, preparing research for the upper echelon, and counseling senior officers.

The role played by radical feminists both within and outside the IDF was the hot topic at a recent conference in Tel Aviv. Raz Sagi, a colonel in the army reserves, charged the radicals with promoting draft-dodging, weakening the army's operational capacity by demanding lower standards for women advancing within the ranks, and undermining the institutional prestige of the IDF through political agitation. All three activities, Sagi asserted, were complementary elements in an endgame strategy aimed at critically weakening the role of Israel's military. 

To this, Sasson-Levy responded by deriding Sagi's evidence as impressionistic and ridiculing the notion of an organized conspiracy orchestrated by feminists like herself within the army's ranks. Seconding her, Sasson-Levy's Bar-Ilan colleague Stuart Cohen proposed that Sagi was the one subverting the IDF with his implicit suggestion that the top brass was guilty of collective stupidity.

But a better explanation than stupidity, if a no less dispiriting one, might be simple inattentiveness. As one woman instrumental in incorporating women into combat units was quoted as saying, "The general staff just couldn't keep track. We carried out a revolution right under their noses."

Whatever the explanation, one can only welcome the conclusion reached at the conference by Amira Dotan, the IDF's first female brigadier general: that, on women's issues, the IDF needs to begin paying immediate attention to a wider range of voices. And one can only hope that the "revolution" in question, marked by a deep contempt for Israel's struggles and a callousness in the face of its suffering, is curbed before real damage is inflicted on Israel's brave men and women in uniform.

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