By Elena Deamant
Israel is one of only a few countries around the world where military service is compulsory for women, resulting in a multitude of unique anti-military movements by women with many different views. The military is constantly present in Israeli society, as the feminist group New Profile has documented. From armed soldiers stationed in many neighborhoods to children learning numbers by counting tanks, (New Profile, 2014), militarism pervades daily life. The situation is further complicated by the fact that citizenship is largely recognized by completion of military service, providing the basis for Israeli women’s claim to equal rights and treatment (Lerner, 2011). Challenging military culture is thus a complex and difficult decision – this article will explore various reasons why Israeli women may choose not to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
The most serious way to refuse military service is objection on grounds of selective political conscience, an act that can mean jail time (Lerner, 2011). Several young conscientious objectors (COs) have cited the Palestinian Occupation in their refusal, choosing not to engage in what CO Tamar Zeevi calls a “circle of violence, hate, and fear” (2016). In specifically naming Palestine, COs open themselves to the risk of imprisonment because the Israeli army does not consider the conflict a valid justification for objection. Furthermore, the movement to end the Occupation is linked by some COs to feminism, like Idan Halili who describes the army as inconsistent with her feminist principles of equality and respect for all (2005, in Natenel, 2012: 85). For Idan, feminism is inherently opposed to the IDF and being a feminist factored into her decision to be a CO. Idan and Tamar were both imprisoned for their conscientious objection, with Idan serving 14 days in prison in 2005 and Tamar serving 115 days during 2016-17.
Alternatively, COs may choose to identify as absolute pacifists, meaning they object to all forms of violence that the military inflicts, rather as a political objector who gives a specific reason for refusal, like the Occupation. Pacifism is an identity that objectors must defend with evidence in front of a military “conscience committee” in order to avoid incarceration (Lerner, 2011). The Conscience Committee is a military body, rather than an impartial third party, and members of the Committee do not necessarily receive training on the definition of pacifism, resulting in a more restrictive environment for objection in Israel than other countries (Weiss, 2012: 83). The subjectivity of the Committee and its bias towards the state is clear. Previous applicants who have appeared before the Committee have shared advice on online message boards, describing a consistent and pervasive desire from the Committee to hear descriptions of having a physical aversion to acts of violence rather than principled objection, following a vegetarian diet, and for applicants not to argue back with the Committee (Ibid.). Even with these unofficial guidelines for how to best make their case, the question remains: how can a person prove their conscience to others? Whether they claim selective or pacifist objection, these young Israelis are defying the system from within, seeking an end to war and the subjugation of Palestinians despite immense societal pressure.
There are, however, only a small number of COs who get sentenced to jail each year. The vast majority of women who do not serve fall under the category of “grey refusal” where they are exempted from the military rather than overtly objecting. Grey refusal can include motherhood and pregnancy, medical conditions, and religious exemption. While these are officially neutral reasons, New Profile has sought to publicly support all forms of refusal so as to reveal the political meaning underlying any and all challenges to militarist culture (Natenel, 2012: 86). Exemptions demonstrate that the military is not omnipotent or irresistible. Mothers being absolved of military service still puts an important limit on the power that the state has to conscript people, preventing families from being separated.
One of the most common areas of grey refusal comes from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish community. The Haredim make up more than 10% of the Israeli population and they have been exempt from conscription for decades to ensure that their religious traditions are maintained (Levush, 2019), primarily to allow men to continue studying yeshiva and for women to follow religious rules of gender separation in work environments, if they choose so. Haredi women occupy a space of feminist complexity – some religious women, citing freedom of choice, have joined the army despite their community discouraging this (Maltz, 2018). With the emphasis that the larger Israeli society places on collective participation in the military, this is not a surprise. On the other hand, the freedom for women to practice their religion as they see fit deserves equal consideration. Haredi women who refuse service in the IDF on grounds of their religion can serve as a model for accessible ways to challenge militarism that do not carry a threat of incarceration or public reprimanding.
While grey refusal may not be explicitly political, the end result certainly is. The most recent data from the IDF shows that 44.3% of women do not serve in the military (Arhronheim, 2020), a significant challenge to the power of the army. In recent months, right-wing factions of PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have addressed this gap by trying to remove the service exemption for the Haredim (Srivastava, 2019), a move that brought hundreds of Haredi protesters into the streets of Jerusalem in 2019 (TOI Staff). The fight to prevent automatic conscription will continue to evolve, but more work is needed to ensure that women, especially from the insular Haredi community, are given a voice and priority in the discussion of objection from military service.
Lane Deamant is a volunteer researcher on the P&J Opposing War Memorial project. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Peace & Justice News
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