An Israeli Woman’s Story — A Bold Act of Refusal


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By Idan Halili, New Profile

The story of how I got discharged from army service ended in 2005, when I was 19 years old. In this chapter 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 various groups and individuals within the population, and a rejection of oppression.

I have not always defined myself as a feminist. Even though I witnessed various forms of injury to women from an early age, and always responded with shock and anger, it took me a long time to understand the profound connection between these events. Even though I came across many scores of instances of women's oppression over the years, it took serious immersion in feminist theories and active work against these injustices to really understand how these various aspects of women's oppression are interconnected.

In the eleventh grade I joined the “Hotline for Migrant Workers” where I learned a lot about trafficking in women and prostitution. I also started giving talks about these issues. This intensive activity around the trafficking in women and prostitution, amongst the most extreme outcomes of women's oppression in society, made me think a great deal about feminism and to take more of an interest in it. This is when I started to see the way that all these types of exploitation of women are tied together. I saw that women's representations in advertising, sexual harassment and trafficking all are expressions of the basic inequality of women in our society.

I had been educated to regard the army as a beneficent organisation, and I believed that the best and most obvious way to be of use to society and my country was through serving in the army. I intended to enlist and so I started the selection process to get drafted for military intelligence, with strong motivation. I thought that women's participation in the army, just like men's, was the feminist solution and would bring equality.

I decided to postpone my enlistment in order to do one year's community service at a therapeutic residential school. While working there, my feminist awareness of women's social hardships led me to run a girls' group. This provided a very powerful encounter with how women and girls internalise social messages that are destructive to them. I became more active, took part in demonstrations, and started to do regular voluntary work at feminist organisations, I went to talks, read books and articles. During the year I spent in community service, my feminist consciousness developed significantly.

Half-way through that year I decided that my way of contributing to society would be in the form of feminist work within the army. So I passed up on the roles for which I had already been selected and turned to the Chief of Staff's Adviser on Women's Affairs, which handles sexual harassment cases, among other things, asking 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 the army. 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 a patriarchal organisation: patriarchy consists of a hierarchic social structure which is underwritten by “masculine” values such as control, a power orientation, and the repression of emotion. The army is hierarchical, and this, by definition, does not allow for equality. Indeed, the army's demand for uniformity and conformity makes it impossible for individuals to express various different identities and needs. Such a type of organisation usually undermines the weaker groups within it as well as outside it.

The army affects a society's state of mind, especially when the army takes a central role in the society. Thus, through its hierarchical nature, the army puts men in positions of power in society. The army entrenches a distorted approach to the value of equality according to which gender equality is measured in terms of the degree to which women have become included in male-identified areas of activity. An army culture of sexual harassment also spills over into civil society. Since it is a violent organisation, the army also is responsible for the increase of violence in society — and as a result, of the violence against women.

I shall look at these things in more detail below.

Women's Exclusion From Influential Positions In Society

Women in the army — in any army in the world — are relegated to the margins of power. Where the military takes a more central place, the society displays a more sexist division of roles. Women, in militarist societies, are consistently excluded from the centres of power and decision-making. Men, therefore, have an easier time than women gaining access to influential positions in a militarist society. In order to reach positions of social and political power, women have to subvert the accepted division of roles and prove themselves as against the men.

When power and influence in a society and a state are mainly under control of men, it is not only those women who want such power for themselves who suffer, but also the entire female population: decisions that affect the whole of society are made by men, according to their point of view. That is to say, usually those who make the decisions are unfamiliar with the hardships and needs of women in their society, and as a result they fail to be responsive to them, instead focusing on the problems they of know from their own experience. In fact, women as a group are weakened due to the existence of a militaristic society.

Enlistment, as far as I am concerned, means agreeing to be part of a system that is based on relations of power and control. Military service means contributing to a framework that systematically perpetuates the exclusion of women from the public sphere and construes their place in society as one that is secondary to that of men.

As a feminist it is my obligation to build civic alternatives to the army through which we can make our contribution to society, while striving, at the same time, to reduce the influence of the army on society. I cannot work, on the one hand, to support equality and recognition of the needs of various groups, while on the other hand serving a system that perpetuates the inequalities between men and women and in society at large.

The Entrenchment of Patriarchal Values and Gender Stereotypes

There is a tendency to think of women's participation in the army as a form of equality — for instance when women get to perform roles that are considered “masculine”, when they are placed in combat units, or when they serve in a predominantly masculine environment. People who take this view argue that in these cases, women are not excluded from male-identified functions and/or places (this extends to the entire army as such, since it is so obviously a male institution). Women's success here, however, is actually in terms of their ability to adjust themselves to the norm of the combat soldier, the “fighting man” — a major military symbol, together with the “hero”. Women, then, are expected to conform to an image which, in our culture, is powerfully identified with stereotypical masculinity. A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality, on the one hand, and the superiority of male-identified values on the other. And so, men and women who serve in the military for long periods of time undergo a process of stereotypical “gendering”.

There is no doubt that gender stereotypes harm men and women alike. While the harm to women is easier to define and diagnose, as women are those who usually find themselves on the side of those who suffer from violence, humiliation and harassment, we cannot underestimate the inevitable harm caused to men, who, in order to be valued, are required — often in a non-verbal manner — to be imprisoned in a model that requires them to be oppressive, to humiliate, not to be in touch with their feelings, to act within models of “dominator and dominated” and, in extreme cases, become devoid of many attributes of human behaviour. It is impossible to prevent this disconnection, alienation, and the other elements of the emotional price that men have to pay for the constant attempt to prove “masculinity”.

I do not claim that the army is solely responsible for the education for stereotypical models of femininity and masculinity, as this dichotomy is one of the pillars of any patriarchal society, and most of us internalise these messages from childhood. Yet armies, due to the fact that they are patriarchal organisations based to a large extent on stereotypical gender images, and due to the way in which they are organised, make a considerable contribution to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Research has shown that women who have served in male-identified functions or in a mostly masculine environment in the military become disconnected from female-identified patterns of behaviour while at the same time internalising male-identified patterns and developing a contemptuous and aversive attitude toward other women [1]. (This proves that the army is based on “masculine” values, which are considered normative, desirable and superior in that context. And if they want to be part of such an organisation, both men and women have to accept and internalise these values: power orientation, violence, and a superior and excluding attitude to others.

If I would have to try to be part of the army this would contradict my feminist values and would require that I submit to its patriarchal values and male-identified norms. I would, thereby, support a social order which rests on power and hierarchy. I do not want to prove that I am able to serve “just like a man”, I am not looking for a kind of equality that will give me rights which are the a priori privilege of men. It is absurd, in fact, to look for equality within an organisation which is fundamentally and by definition not equal, and which stands in sharp contradiction with my ideological principles and conscience.

My wish is to be a valuable member of society without subscribing to hierarchical and control-oriented principles and without being part of an organisation which is especially oppressive in its approach to women and to populations who are not included in the hegemonic group.

The Success of the Sexual Harassment Culture

Women in the army often make light of harassment, even if the sexual innuendo they have to put up with actually disturbs them. The seriousness of sexual harassment is generally played down. A patriarchal and male-dominated organisation like the army creates conditions that encourage women's sexual harassment. When women are strongly motivated to become integrated in the army they may have a hard time admitting that they are exposed to harassment and that they disapprove of it. Such women are expected, to some extent, to swallow, ignore, and accept these behaviours, and even to treat them as “only natural” — as flattery, as a kind of amusing bad behavior. This is especially the case when there is no repeated approach by one particular man towards one particular woman, but rather just a certain kind of “atmosphere”, something you could call “ambient sexual harassment”. This consists of, for instance, certain types of remarks made by various people, songs including more or less explicit sexual hints, sexual jokes, looks, whistles, etc.

Research done in the US army has shown a strong correlation between this type of ambient sexual harassment and specific instances of personal sexual harassment [2].

And so, women in the military, especially in lower ranking functions, find themselves almost constantly oppressed and marginalised — not just because they are excluded from roles that are reserved for males only, but also because their surroundings are hostile and undermining to them as women. In fact, it might be said that a mood of sexual harassment is endemic to a patriarchal and hierarchical organization like the army.

A woman who enlists is sometimes required to cope with sexual harassment within an environment that encourages such harassment. Moreover, since the army is such a central institution in society, a culture of sexual harassment is also exported to, and further entrenched in, civil society.

This is why I, as a feminist, feel I must avoid military service and act to limit and reduce the influence of the army on civil society.

The Increase of Violence against Women in Society

Studies have shown a parallel between violence in the public sphere and considering women as inferior to men by the dominant culture [3]. In these contexts, violence against women within the family is legitimised. One explanation is that in societies that are coping with violent conflict, uses of violence within civil society become legitimised, and this, again mobilises civil society for engagement with violent military conflict. Here, the levels of violence and of indifference toward violent behaviours in all walks of life, including the family, spiral upwards. This is how violence against women ends up being tolerable and acceptable.

When men spend a formative period of their lives in the military they are likely to receive positive reinforcements for the use of brute power and violence, and to develop an indifferent attitude to the use of “mild” forms of violence, “in certain circumstances”. In an organisation whose main values include superiority and control, these behaviours are likely to be encouraged in the specific professional (military) activities, but also in interpersonal relations, with regard to women and to others who are branded inferior — at home and outside, in the street.

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 form and kind — against women. Therefore there is, in my opinion, a contradiction between my being a feminist and my ability to serve in the army. I resist being a part of the army not only on theoretical grounds. Once I understood that there is a tight connection between all the forms of women's oppression in society, I also saw that the only way for me to live as a feminist would be to watch out, wherever I was, for the social structures that make the abuse of women and other underprivileged groups possible, to oppose these and to work for their replacement with alternative values. Army service would impose a way of life on me that is deeply contrary to my values and moral beliefs. I would have to consistently deny and suppress my most fundamental persuasions. I cannot live in such flagrant denial of my conscience and I cannot serve an organisation that tramples the values on which my whole moral outlook is built.

In Israel, where there is a law that imposes army duty on Jewish men and women, there are a number of legal options through which it is possible to get an exemption from army service. As I have mentioned before, I was brought up to believe that the army was a positive and vital organisation and that serving in the army is a great contribution to society. Up to a few months before my call-up was due, I had not even considered the option of refusing to serve. The stage at which I began to think about it threw me into a sea of confusion, frustration and fears, and I felt that if I was going to avoid army service, I had to feel completely confident about what I was about to do, the reasons for it and the way in which I was about to do it.

During the period when I was thinking over the notion of refusing to serve, I felt that I had to have impeccable reasons, that I should not present an ideology that was not fully established or get an exemption in a “roundabout” way, which did not reflect my beliefs in full. Looking back, I smile at these demands that I posed to myself, as today it is clear to me that for a girl in such a confusing and complex process, both at the personal level and the social level, it is almost impossible to go through such a loaded and controversial process without any gaps. I found myself in great confusion: I felt clearly that army service collides with the values I believed in, but 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 how refusing was unthinkable.

During my main period of confusion, in which I found it hard to make the link between the reason that led me to decide not to join the army and the practical ways to be discharged, I tried at first to understand what options I had. For women in Israel there are several ways to get an exemption from military service. One option that is valid for women is religious belief. I am certainly not religious, and 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 way 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 certainly didn't want to contribute to the institutions in charge of marriage in Israel, which are, to say the least, quite patriarchal and anachronistic.

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 to get an exemption for “psychiatric” reasons. I do believe that most people do not 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 which is authorised to grant an exemption on grounds of conscience. In practice, the committee only approves applications that indicate that the applicant is a pacifist. Those who give their objection to the occupation as a reason, for example, do not receive an exemption, since this is seen as an objection to a specific policy employed by the government, rather than violence of any kind. Only those who claim to be pacifists and object to any kind of violence, and who would not join any army at all, can 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. Again, due to those slightly exaggerated demands I posed to myself, to be completely confident without any reservations with 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. In a brief moment, entirely different from the long and constant deliberations that had occupied my mind in the preceding months, I came to a realisation. 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 that. It was clear to me that the feminist objection is an objection to any army, rather than a specific government policy. I do object to the occupation, but I would refuse to enlist even if it weren't for the occupation and even if it had been another country's army. Shortly afterwards 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 known to the Israeli public as something completely different.

About a decade before the time when I was due to enlist, A Supreme Court case made the headlines in Israel. A young woman called Alice Miller wanted to take part in the air force training 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 is the fact that women were prevented from serving in roles that were considered “masculine”. The Supreme Court held that this was indeed discrimination, and the air force training became available for women too. To this day, this is considered a significant achievement, and if you ask people on the street about “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 that I wanted to be discharged for feminist reasons, it would raise some eyebrows, as was indeed the case.

I was put on trial in front of army representatives and sentenced to two weeks in a women's military prison. If I had any hesitations at that stage, there was no doubt that they ended at that point. Military prison reflected the oppression and the absurdity of the military system in the extreme.

After wearing the prison uniform (which belongs to the US army — rumour has it that these are the surplus of the Iraq war, which Israel received as a donation from the US army…), I joined about 50 other women of my age. Most of them were sent to prison for desertion, caused, in many cases, due to the inability of the military system to handle their problems: a soldier who escaped from her commander's sexual harassment; 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; and many other stories. Instead of showing understanding for their problems, the natural way in which the army handled such “useless” soldiers was by sending them to prison, which obviously didn't help in solving their problems or improving their psychological state.

The most intense experience I had in prison was the feeling of having no control. Once you arrive at the prison, most of your belongings are taken away from you, and you are put in a cell which is almost entirely full of bunk beds. You and the other prisoners have the to clean the cells each morning, but no scrubbing can remove the unbearable smell of dampness in the cells, which clings to the mattresses, the blankets, the walls, the air and you.

Most of the daily schedule in prison comprises formation parades and breaks, that are as random as can be. So you may be sitting in your cell, trying to read a book, talking to other prisoners or resting, but the moment you hear the call “60 seconds!”, you must go outside immediately and form lines together with the other prisoners. The large number of formation parades, held at such short notice and at random times, contributes to the feeling of having no personal control.

When I was imprisoned, as I noticed later, my spirit of resistance and my ability to stand up for myself were undermined to some extent. I understood that the experience in which I had almost no control and no ability to make decisions about myself made me feel like a little girl who is dependent on the adults around her. Automatically, I went back to childhood patterns of behaviour, by trying to be “OK” and “not cause any trouble”. One of the instances in which I realised how absurd my situation was, was when on a certain day I asked one of the officers for permission to use the public phone for more than three minutes (this is the time allocated to the prisoners' daily telephone calls. I got the permission, and the reason she gave for it was: “because you are a good soldier”. I admit I didn't take that as a compliment…

If the prison experience was hard for me, I have no doubt that for those who were sent to prison as a result of personal distress — rather than the choice to refuse — this experience can be many times harder and more destructive. Eating disorders, drug abuse, sexual injuries — these are only some of the experiences of many of the prisoners. The loss of control, being disconnected from the outside world, the loneliness, the smells, and the other elements that comprise life in prison, obviously make the tough experiences even more intense.

The officers, we must remember, are girls the same age as the prisoners, who are supposed to control and supervise the prisoners and all their activities. Since they have no relevant training, I have no doubt that they don't know how to cope with the various problems that the prisoners suffer from, and I also have no doubt that they themselves may be harmed by the experience. The demand that they act in a controlling and oppressive role in such an absurd and depressing situation, in which they are told to oppress those who are in distress, raises questions that are not easy to cope with.

Spending time in prison was undoubtedly very depressing and I do not recommend it to anybody. In the Israeli refusal movement, objectors are often sent to prison repeatedly. The objector is sent to prison for several weeks for refusing to enlist, and when the first period of imprisonment ends and they persists in their refusal to enlist, they are sent to prison again and again, until one of the parties gives in: the objector (usually by deciding to get an exemption on mental grounds) or the army (usually by discharging him as a person “unsuitable” for military service, rather than as a conscientious objector). The choice to go to prison made by some of the objectors is sometimes seen as an almost heroic act 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 state, which is bound to be shaken by the imprisonment.

During my prison time, I understood the problematic aspect of the repeated imprisonment. Instead of being seen as a “heroic fighter” and being prepared to sacrifice your life and mental health for the sake of military service and fighting, you are considered as a “heroic objector”, who is willing to make the sacrifices that prison entails. In my opinion, this is a duplication of a militaristic pattern of behaviour that I do not wish to be part of. Undoubtedly, sometimes there is a certain trap, because in order to voice your opinion — an ideological objection to military service — for example in the media, you are expected to perform “heroic” acts — if you haven't sacrificed you life at war, at least you've sacrificed your mental health in prison.

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 co-operate 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 with 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.

At the end of the day, after being released from prison, and following an appeal by me and the lawyer who assisted me, I was given the dubious right to appear in front of the “Conscience Committee”. The meeting with the body was an absurd experience in itself. A few days later, I had received an exemption on the grounds that I was “unsuitable for military service”, backed up by the reason that “feminism” was not a reason for exemption as a conscientious objector.

One of the amusing manipulations that the “Conscience Committee” tested on me was trying to make me think that my choice to refuse to serve in the army was a choice to be “passive”, as opposed to choosing 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 the 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 non-violent army would not be an army at all; therefore it is not clear to me what “making a change from within” means. Male chauvinism does exist everywhere, but it is not a foundation stone everywhere.

The army, unlike other places with an aggressive atmosphere, needs the male chauvinist and macho values in order to exist. Without the worship of the fighting masculinity, people will start to lose interest in the combat units, which are the essence of the army. Without the repression of emotions and the admiration of superiority and aggression, people will have to develop more compassion, humanity and other characteristics that might 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 military matters.

Another argument I encountered because of my refusal was that the army, at the end of the day, was an organisation dealing with matters of life and death, and these will always be more important than other social issues, painful as they might be. Without even entering a discussion of whether the activities of the army save lives or cause more deaths, I think this argument is based on a rather problematic perspective in the first place.

I have no doubt that in Israel there is a tendency to make the cow called the “IDF” sacred in the name of the magic word “security”, and as a result, any social discourse can be silenced. Following the Second Lebanon War, the Rape Crisis Centre got many calls from women who were attacked while in the bomb shelters; in an attempt to escape the usual security threat, they found themselves exposed, without protection, to a security threat which was no less painful. I do not recall the government or society pooling their resources in order to handle the damage caused to those survivors.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore the women murdered in Israel in recent years by jealous husbands and family members, sometimes by arms belonging to “security” forces or to security companies. The characteristics of murder due to jealousy are quite familiar, and create an atmosphere of terror no less than an “external” security threat does. Nevertheless, murder within the family or between spouses is considered to be a “social” matter, of secondary importance, not a matter in which we need to invest all of our social resources — even though it is a matter of life and death, just as are the armed conflicts between different national groups.

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 saner, 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.

Thanks to Tal Hayoun for translation from Hebrew to English


[1] Sason-Levy, Orna 2003 “Feminism and military gender practices: Israeli Women Soldiers in ‘Masculine’ Roles. The sociological Inquiry vol. 73, No. 3, pp 440-465 [2] Firestone, Juanita M., and Harris, Richard J., “Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military: Individualized and Environmental Contexts”, Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 21, No. 1, Fall 1994 [3] Schmeidl, S. and E Piza-Lopez (2002). Gender and Conflict Early Warning: A Framework for Action, International Alert and the Swiss Peace Foundation.

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology

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Related peace activist(s): Idan Halili
Related peace activist(s): Idan Halili