Israeli Activists Call Enlistment a Woman’s Choice

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Idan Halili

TEL AVIV, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)–The way Hadas Amit sees it, she is serving time in an army prison cell in the name of morality, justice and love for humankind.

The 19-year-old pacifist and conscientious objector was sentenced Dec. 18 to 14 days in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military as required of eligible men and women. Although the military extends exemptions for several reasons–including religious observance and unqualified pacifism–Amit’s case was flatly denied by the military “conscience committee.”

“If I were to be recruited into the army, this would absolutely and in all respects contradict my convictions and my way of life, since violence, killing, nationalism and vandalism are not part of them,” she wrote in a letter to military authorities declaring her refusal to serve that was circulated in an action alert in her support.

The anti-militarist and women’s rights organization New Profile has provided Amit with counseling since she decided to refuse military service and recently launched a letter campaign targeting government officials and the media. Imprisonment of conscientious objectors such as Amit is a violation of international law, says the group, which operates out of volunteers’ homes around the country and has no official headquarters.

Like other organizations that support conscientious objectors New Profile is on the fringe in Israel. It has perhaps only 60 activists, mostly female but also some male. Yet the ongoing activism of these volunteers continues to spur publicity about the role of the military, even as factional tensions and recent violence raise the prospect of a regional war in the Middle East.

A year ago, New Profile, which opposes compulsory enlistment and supports anyone who refuses to enlist, boosted the issue into the headlines when another young woman, Idan Halili, spent two weeks in jail for refusing to serve in the military on feminist grounds.

New Profile provided her with legal aid, organized a support rally at the main conscription base and helped garner extensive media coverage, including four television interviews.

Statement of Refusal

In her statement of refusal, Halili, then 19, cited women’s exclusion from influential positions in the military, the entrenchment of “patriarchal values and gender stereotypes” such as aggressiveness and control, and a hierarchical and male-dominated army culture that encourages sexual harassment.

“The army can’t exist with feminist values,” Halili told Women’s eNews recently during an interview in her Tel Aviv apartment. “Because of its structure; it’s hierarchical and forceful and violent–things that are so imprinted on it that are such basic things to the army–that it’s impossible to say, ‘Fine. Change it. Change it from inside . . . so you won’t be violent.'”

Deeming her “unsuitable” to serve because of her beliefs, the military formally exempted Halili on Dec. 27, 2005. Today, the New Profile activist is a civil service volunteer for a migrant workers’ hotline, where she educates the public about sex trafficking of women.

Shani Werner

New Profile, which was established by a women’s study group in 1998, does not call for the dismantling of the army but rather works to reduce the military’s influence over society, says Shani Werner, a 21-year-old New Profile activist in Jerusalem. “The military option needs to be one of many other options. It doesn’t have to be the decisive option.”

Among its activities, New Profile organizes social and discussion groups for young people to meet regularly and discuss such topics as enlistment, politics and feminism. These are some of the only forums where participants will even be asked the question: “Do you want to enlist?” says Werner. The organization has also created exhibits that demonstrate how militarism is represented and reinforced in Israeli schools through curricula, songs and class field trips.

At least four other organizations in Israel support “refuseniks” who decline to serve in the military. The most well-known group Yesh Gvul, for example, which often works with New Profile and whose name means “there is a limit” in Hebrew, mainly campaigns against Israel’s occupation by supporting soldiers who refuse duties of a “repressive or aggressive nature.”

Embraces Discussion

New Profile, however, is the only refusnik group that defines itself as feminist. It advocates for equality between women and men, Werner says, and embraces discussion here of a more humane and just society that “doesn’t humiliate anyone, gives rights to everyone and . . . that doesn’t control another people,” Werner says.

During Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer, the group received more than 700 phone calls from Israelis seeking advice and information on how to get out of army service and avoid serving in the war.

“It’s a large number. It’s much more than we usually see in normal months,” says Tali Lerner, an activist with New Profile, which is part of the Israeli network Coalition of Women for Peace. “It shows that many people don’t believe in this war . . . People are trying to say that trying to find solutions of violence doesn’t take us anywhere.”

In addition to supporting men and women who don’t want to enter the military, New Profile opposes the widespread custom of high-ranking soldiers–almost always men–leaving the military and taking top positions in education and politics.

Army officials say great strides have been made for women in recent years and point out that today women serve as pilots, in the navy and in a variety of combat positions.

“Women are anything but marginal if they choose to go to a job where they make a difference,” says Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Noa Meir. As in any job, an employee’s experience depends greatly on her particular boss.

Individual Experiences

Exactly, say some informed observers: One woman’s experience in the military can be vastly different from that of another woman.

“For some women, military service is an empowering experience, for others it’s devastating,” says Orna Sasson-Levy, a senior lecturer in the department of sociology and in the gender studies program at Bar Ilan University. “For some, it’s both. For many it’s both. On the whole, it doesn’t treat women as equal to men.”

Much depends on a woman’s role, position and rank, she says. Those who serve in military intelligence, for instance, use their minds and have significant authority while those working as secretaries often have a “depressing” experience and can suffer a loss of self-esteem since such a position offers little chance to develop as a person.

Sarai Aharoni, an activist at Isha L’Isha (Women to Women): Haifa Feminist Center in Northern Israel, acknowledges that the military offers many women a chance to be independent and to gain basic employment skills for the first time in their lives.

Army service is highly valued here and its completion can significantly affect income and employment opportunities, particularly for those with limited options.

“This is something that New Profile rightfully criticizes,” Aharoni said. “The army does not have to be that mechanism” that allows people to get legitimate citizen rights.

Sasson-Levy says it will take much more than just supporting “refuseniks” to reduce militarism in Israeli society.

“Demilitarization is a process that can start only when the army will be less important,” she said. “It will be less important when we have true peace with our Palestinian neighbors.”

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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