Idan Halili became the first Israeli conscientious objector to refuse military service on the grounds of feminism in 2005. In an extract reproduced from WRI's 2010 anthology of women conscientious objectors, she recounts the experience and gives us her rationale.
The story of how I got discharged from army service ended when I was 19 years old. Here, I try to describe the story of my refusal, the process I went through and its implications.
It was my belief then, and it still is today, that army service would force me to take part in an organisation whose principles clash with the feminist values in which I believe, and which are reflected in the commitment to human dignity, equality, consideration for the specific needs of different groups and individuals within the population, and a rejection of oppression.
Originally, I had thought that my way of contributing to society would be in the form of feminist work within the army. So I turned to the Chief of Staff's Advisor on Women's Affairs – which, among other things, handles sexual harassment cases in the military – and asked to do my military service there. This was a phase of strong personal consciousness raising for me, and the more I became aware of feminist dilemmas, the more often, too, did I have to seriously face the issue of enlistment. Here I had to cope with a difficult conflict between the notions on which I had been raised from an early age – according to which the military is a positive institution and serving in it is a particularly respectable way of making your social contribution – and, on the other hand, feminist values of dignity and equality.
The army is an organisation whose most fundamental values cannot be brought into harmony with feminist values: it is hierarchical and this, by definition, does not allow for equality. The army's demand for uniformity and conformity also makes it impossible for individuals to express different identities and needs. The army, then, entrenches a distorted approach to equality, measured, in the case of gender, by the degree to which women have become included in male identified areas of activity. Since it is a violent organisation, the army is also responsible for an increase of violence in society – and, as a result, of an increase in violence against women.
Typical organisational and structural attributes of the army, like its hierarchical organisational structure as well as male majority, the clear identification of newcomers, and a non-professional work atmosphere, have also been identified as factors encouraging sexual harassment. The demand that a woman enlist, then, is tantamount to demanding that she cope with sexual harassment within an environment which encourages it and since the army is such a central institution in Israeli society, a culture of sexual harassment is also exported to and further entrenched in civilian society. When men spend a formative period of their lives in the military they are likely to receive positive reinforcements for the use of brute force and violence. In an organisation whose main values include superiority and control, these behaviours are likely to be encouraged not only in specific military activities, but also in interpersonal relations.
I feel committed, as a feminist woman, to ensure women's rights in society. I cannot join an organisation which, either directly or indirectly, encourages violence, of any kind, against women. Therefore there is, in my opinion, a contradiction between my being a feminist and my ability to enlist. But whilst I felt clearly that army service collided with the values I believed in, I knew that a feminist ideology is not an option for receiving an exemption and I found it hard to get away from the ideas I grew up with about the importance of the army and about refusing being unthinkable.
I tried at first to understand what options I had. One option that is valid for women is religious belief. I am certainly not religious, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the place where I grew up is known as quite secular. I immediately assumed that even if I tried to get an exemption for religious reasons, nobody would believe me. Another option is marriage. The thought of a marriage of convenience passed through my head, but quickly disappeared, because I didn't want to feel as though I was 'cheating', and I certainly didn't want to contribute to the institutions in charge of marriage in Israel, which are, to say the least, quite patriarchal.
The option of getting pregnant and giving birth, which also enables women to get an exemption, I did not consider seriously for one moment, for obvious reasons, so I was left with two options. One was to try and get an exemption for 'psychiatric' reasons. I do not believe that most people need to lie in order to be found mentally unsuitable for a military organisation, but I felt that such reasons did not describe, in the most accurate way, why I objected to military service.
The last option left to me was to apply to a military body called 'The Conscience Committee'. This is a military committee that is authorised to grant an exemption on grounds of conscience. In practice, the committee only approves applications that indicate that the applicant is what they consider to be a pacifist: only those who object to any kind of violence, and who would not join any army at all, can sometimes receive an exemption on grounds of conscience in Israel.
Today it is easy for me to define myself as a pacifist, but at that stage of the process I was going through I still had not defined myself as such. Due to the exaggerated demands I posed to myself, to be completely confident and without any reservations in my actions, I didn't want to apply for an exemption for reasons of pacifism.
I visualise the stage in which I ultimately decided not to enlist as an image often seen in cartoons, when a light bulb appears above a character's head: I had an epiphany. I understood that even though there was no option of applying for an exemption 'on grounds of feminism', there was nothing to prevent me from doing so. It was clear to me that the feminist objection is an objection to any army, rather than a specific government policy. So, I started drafting a letter for the 'Conscience Committee, in which I described my feminist beliefs in detail and tried to explain in as much detail as possible the link between feminism and objection to militarism, an explanation which in the Israeli public is certainly not obvious, since 'feminism' is commonly known as something completely different.
About a decade before I was due to enlist, a Supreme Court case made the headlines in Israel. A young woman called Alice Miller wanted to join the air force and was refused because she was a woman. In her application to the Supreme Court, backed by liberal feminist organisations, she asked the court to grant her 'equality', as she interpreted the word, and asked to be given the 'right' to become a military pilot, just as this right is given to men.
The only aspect seen as discriminatory in the Israeli public consciousness was the fact that women were prevented from serving in roles that were considered 'masculine'. The Supreme Court held that this was indeed discrimination, and air force training became available for women too. To this day, this is considered a feminist achievement, and if you ask people on the street about 'the army' and 'feminism', there is no doubt that the name Alice Miller will be raised more than once. Therefore, it was clear to me that when I claimed I wanted to be discharged for feminist reasons, it would raise some eyebrows, as was indeed the case.
I was put to trial in front of army representatives and sentenced to two weeks in a women's military prison, where I joined about 50 other women of my age. Most of them were sent to prison for desertion, caused, in many cases, by the inability of the military system to handle their problems: a soldier who escaped from her commander's sexual harassment, for example; a girl who was a sole provider in a large family with disabled parents, who didn't receive permission from the army to work and provide for her family; a soldier who was locked in her house by a jealous partner and therefore could not arrive at the army base. Instead of showing understanding for their problems, the army's way of handling such 'useless' soldiers was by sending them to prison.
Spending time in prison was depressing and I do not recommend it to anybody. But I feel that the choice to go to prison made by some objectors is seen as heroic in the refusal movement. You can feel the appreciation for your determination and for the willingness to sacrifice your freedom as well as your mental health, which is bound to be shaken by imprisonment. In my opinion, this is a duplication of a militaristic pattern of behaviour that I do not wish to be part of.
I reached this realisation only after entering prison and experiencing what it means, on the most emotional level. I decided that I didn't want to cooperate with the image of the 'heroic objector'. At the same time, the processes I went through during the period of my final encounters with the army allowed me to understand that in order to be confident in my beliefs and the reasons for my objection, I didn't need the army's seal of approval. Therefore I decided not to insist on getting an exemption as a conscientious objector.
After being released from prison and following an appeal, I was given the dubious right to appear in front of the 'Conscience Committee' again. It was an absurd experience. A few days later, I received an exemption on the ground that I was 'unsuitable for military service', backed up by the reason that 'feminism' was not a cause of exemption as a conscientious objector.
One of the most 'amusing' manipulations that the 'Conscience Committee' tested on me was to try and make me think that my choice to refuse to serve in the army was a choice to be 'passive', as opposed to an 'active' way of making a change 'from within'.
Somehow, it is not clear to me how joining the most male chauvinistic organisation in this country can produce feminist action. It is true that in academia, in many work places and on the street there also exists an atmosphere of hierarchy, force, or patriarchy, but only in the army is there a combination of so many oppressive elements in such an extreme manner, and only in the army are these elements vital to the essence of the organisation. A non-hierarchical, non-aggressive or nonviolent army would not be an army at all. And whilst male chauvinism does exist everywhere, it is not a foundation stone everywhere: without a worshipping attitude towards fighting masculinity, people will start to lose interest in combat units, which are the essence of an army. Without the repression of emotion and admiration for superiority and aggression, people will have to develop more compassion, humanity and other characteristics that may render them unable to drop bombs into the heart of a populated area, to shoot the person standing in front of them, to humiliate entire families on a daily basis, to agree to be killed at any given time, and other routine army matters.
In my act of refusal and in my life in general, I have tried to make a difference from within. Not to change the army from within, but to influence, from within, the society in which I live. I would like to live in a society which is less militaristic, more equal and respectful and less violent and oppressive. I do not think that my single act of refusal can cause all that, but I am happy to have had the strength to join a growing movement of people who are willing to ask questions.