By Elena (Lane) 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 widely recognized as a central aspect of people’s lives, 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 impacts Israelis socially and politically. 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). As such, women and other minority groups are expected to fulfill their mandatory military term in order to be considered equal citizens. Challenging military culture is therefore a complex and difficult decision – this article will explore various reasons why Israeli women may choose to object to service 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 often means jail time (Lerner, 2011). A small number of young conscientious objectors (COs) have cited the Palestinian Occupation in their refusal, choosing not to engage in what CO Tamar Ze’evi calls a “circle of violence, hate, and fear” (2016). In specifically naming Palestine, COs open themselves to the risk of imprisonment because, despite the length and intensity of the Occupation, the Israeli army does not consider such objections acceptable for exemption. When Tamar Ze’evi refused to participate in the violence of the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the army responded by repeatedly sentencing her to jail for a total of 115 days during 2016 and 2017 (Cohen, 2017). Despite the price Ze’evi paid for speaking out against the Occupation, she maintains that morally and philosophically she made the right choice (Ibid.).
Furthermore, the movement to end military occupation is linked by some COs to feminism, like Idan Halili, who sees the army as fundamentally opposed to her feminist principles of equality and respect for all (2005, in Natenel, 2012: 85). Halili was the first woman to stand in front of the Israeli military Conscience Committee on the specific grounds of feminism as conscience.
Halili refused to serve in the military in 2005 because she found it to be male-dominated and structured by a sexist power division. For women to be successful soldiers means they must identify with and act according to stereotypical masculinity, which Halili describes as being aggressive, emotionless, and oppressive (2011, 66). And from her involvement with women’s support groups, Halili learned that sexual harassment is rampant and underreported in the military, a situation she understandably wanted to avoid (2011, 67). Halili’s feminist conscience prevented her from engaging in an unequal and violent system. Halili served two weeks in prison, an experience she characterized as distressing, dehumanizing, and lonely (2011, 71), before the Conscience Committee finally heard her case and granted her exemption as a feminist.
Alternatively, COs may choose to identify as absolute pacifists, meaning they object to all forms of violence that the military inflicts, instead of as a political objector who gives a specific reason for refusal. Pacifism is an identity that objectors must defend with evidence in front of a military 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 and military 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.). Applicants who do not express the sentiments that the Committee prefers to hear about pacifists are less likely to be exempt and more likely to serve time in jail. 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 absolute pacifist objection, these young Israelis are seeking an end to war by defying the system.
There are, however, only a few COs each year, making up less than one percent of conscripts (Grieg, 2018). 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 exemption 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 since the formation of the Israeli state 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 Haredi 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 ostracization within their own community, but they must still carry a burden for not following mainstream practices.
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 enormous social pressure Israelis face to participate in the military causes harsh stigma and discrimination against those who object. This difficult situation is further compounded for women who might not want to serve in the military on grounds of conscience, but who cannot, for reasons such as caring obligations or poverty, risk breaking the law or the fundamental expectations of society. The fight to prevent automatic conscription will continue as the right-wing in Israel pushes for fewer exemptions, but more work is needed to ensure that women are given a voice and priority in the discussion of objection from military service.
Ahronheim, A. (2020). A third of Israeli youth do not enlist in IDF. The Jerusalem Post.
Cohen, G. (2017). After 115 Days in Jail, Conscientious Objector Tamar Zeevi Released From Israeli Army. Haaretz
Greig, R. (2018). The young Israelis imprisoned for refusing to serve in the IDF. Huck.
Halili, I. (2011). An Israeli Woman’s Story — A Bold Act of Refusal, in War Resisters International.
Lerner, T. (2011). On Women’s Refusal in Israel. From New Profile, on War Resisters’ International.
Levush, R. (2019). Israel: Military Draft Law and Enforcement. Library of Congress.
Maltz, J. (2018). ‘Why Him and Not Me?’ The Orthodox Women Defying Their Rabbis and Joining the Israeli Army. Haaretz.
Natanel, K. (2012). resistance at the limits: feminist activism and conscientious objection in Israel. Feminist Review, 101, 78-96.
New Profile. (2014). Militarism.
Srivastava, M. (2019). Israel’s ultraorthodox fight to retain military service exemption. Financial Times.
Staff of Times of Israel (2019). Ultra-Orthodox block Jerusalem roads in protest of draft evasion arrests. Times Of Israel.
Weiss, E. (2012). Principle or Pathology? Adjudicating the Right to Conscience in the Israeli Military. American Anthropologist, 114(1), 81-94.
Zeevi, T. (2016). I refuse to serve in the Israeli military. Times Of Israel.