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The militarised zone

Andrea D'Cruz talks to women from New Profile, a feminist movement for the demilitarisation of Israeli society

July 25, 2010
7 min read

In academic-speak a definition of militarism might run something like this: the stretching of the military into civilian spheres – culture, education, the family, politics, public space – such that militaristic presumptions become normalised and military functions, such as war, are facilitated. But it’s Or Ben-David, a 19-year-old Israeli woman, jailed three times for her refusal to serve in the army, who provides my favourite example when she ends her list of the militarisation of her life – ‘commercials, an old school book with soldiers in, my mother singing old songs of the partisans and Eretz Israel …’ – by exclaiming: ‘My underwears are army underwears!’

There was a time when such a list would never have occurred to her. It was only after getting involved in New Profile’s youth group that she began to notice these things, to understand how the military had saturated the civilian realm.

New Profile (NP) was established just over a decade ago as the first Israeli political group with demilitarisation as its top priority. Its two main areas of work are around military enlistment – encouraging young people to think before enlisting and supporting those who decide to refuse – and educating about militarism. A current travelling exhibition features images alongside questions that expose militarism. There is a photo of a roundabout in Be’er Sheva. At its centre is a fighter jet; one of a number the previous mayor had chosen to decorate his city with. The text alongside asks: ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’

Long-time NP member Diana Dolev explains the importance of her work on the education team: ‘If you speak to people in Israel, Jews in Israel, and you point out that we are a militarised society, they’re shocked, they say “We, militarised?” It’s so much a part of our everyday life that we can’t see it … militarised mindsets are so deep rooted; it is like part of us.’

Her point is proved on the bus journey to my next NP interview when a conscript, surprised by my accent, asks where I am going (he proudly tells me he is visiting the hospital for an injury incurred in military service, before sheepishly elaborating that it is RSI from excessive computer use). I describe NP, showing him their leaflets. His reaction is a mixture of amusement, confusion and disbelief.

He completely rejects the idea of even asking ‘Should I enlist?’ and that the militarisation of Israeli society could be a topic of discussion. He also refuses to accept what I tell him a friend of mine reported from the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza: thousands of chickens systematically bulldozed.

‘But he was there, he saw it with his own eyes, he took photos.’

‘No, that didn’t happen,’ he laughs. As with his reaction to NP, he completely identifies with the military; the military is unquestionable and always right. His is a militarised mindset.

Even a picnic basket

Similarly, the militarisation of everyday life, especially family life, takes on a habitual, unquestioned character, while being essential to the functioning of the army. Cynthia Enloe, a feminist international relations theorist, writes that even ‘making up a picnic basket can be militarised if it is packed with the intention of keeping up the morale of a soldier.’

Michal Gelbart talks me through the NP exhibition, which she helped put together. One of the pictures is an advert for bread yeast, with a mother and son and text that reads: ‘When my boy is home on his ordinary leave, he deserves extraordinary pastry.’

‘The mother is mobilised, we are all the time, from when they are small,’ she elaborates. ‘You go after them everywhere and you bring the schnitzels and all kinds of food. Now I’m aware of being mobilised, the whole society is mobilised around it.’

If militarism sustains the occupation and war, demilitarisation becomes an important anti-occupation and anti-war strategy. But for NP it is also distinctly feminist. While strains of Israeli feminism promote women’s enthusiastic entry and achievement in the military as demonstrative of their equal worth and as a path to societal equality, there is a more inclusive feminism present in NP.

‘When I told my mother I was going to resist the draft because I’m a feminist, she said, “If you’re a feminist, go be a fighter pilot,”‘ writes Shani Werner, another NP activist. ‘People tend to see feminism as an attempt to prove that “we can do it too”. They don’t get the message that means the most to me: feminism is a struggle against oppression. All oppression.’

‘It’s about demilitarising Israeli society in order to end the occupation but also to stop doing all the other terrible things that we do to our own citizens,’ Ruth Hiller, NP co-founder, tells me. ‘We don’t provide equality for women, Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], Ethiopian citizens, the Arab population, the handicapped …’

Much of that inequality stems from the unchallenged centrality of the military in Israeli society; the military is the institution through which you earn power and economic opportunity in civilian spheres. And since able-bodied, Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) men dominate the combat units, home to the most valued roles in the army, they also dominate Israeli society.

The vision of feminist-as-fighter-pilot is not a solution, Orna Sasson-Levy of Bar Ilan University emphasises: ‘What I find in my research is that even when the army is trying to create an equal-opportunity environment, the culture is so gendered, so masculine that women cannot achieve an equal place without completely co-operating with its chauvinistic structure and reproducing it in their behaviour towards other women.’

‘When we’re talking about militarised, we’re also talking about patriarchal,’ Ruth Hiller argues. ‘Women do not have the same kind of input or the same sort of influence on society. Who are our prime ministers, who are our ministers? How many of them are from the military, how many of them are commanding officers? Why is it that in this country that has 51 per cent of the population women there are not even 30 Knesset [Israeli parliament] women?’

Something among men

Diana Dolev recounts to me a lunch with friends shortly after the attack on Gaza. She told them she had been against it right from the beginning. Her host said that was nonsense, everybody was for it in the first few days and then turned to her husband and started talking about the rights and wrongs of the attack. ‘It was like I didn’t exist because what I have to say is not as important. I see this happening all the time – war matters and high politics, that’s something among men, they understand better.’

‘The military creates a mindset where women are worth less,’ she concludes. Michal Gelbart had noted to me that it’s never a female soldier or a daughter who ‘deserves an extraordinary pastry’. The worth-less mindset also translates into lower pay for the same work and fewer opportunities for highly paid, high-status professions.

Hiller believes that soldiers in the occupied West Bank don’t leave their aggression at the checkpoint; they bring it back home. Indeed, when I explain to Or Ben-David that that my militarism article will be focused on women, she leans across the table, wide-eyed and animated: ‘I want to tell you about the women I met in [military] prison … There was one woman who had been in the jail for two months and didn’t want to leave; her boyfriend had beaten her for four years. I don’t know if you can really blame it on the army … but it is, it is the army.’

‘A militarised society altogether believes in force,’ Dolev says. ‘The first idea that comes into people’s heads of how to solve a problem is by force, no negotiating, no listening to the other side – no, you solve things by force. You see this everywhere in Israel.’

She admits that the process of educating a society into demilitarisation will be difficult and slow going, but she and New Profile believe it is possible. As Cynthia Enloe put it, ‘The world is something that has been made; therefore it can be remade.’

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