By Eden Lumerman
In a dusty military base, somewhere in the Negev Desert, an Administration unit composed of five Israeli women soldiers fight boredom by setting new records on Minesweeper and Solitaire on their office’s PCs. Their official positions are Postal Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), Paper Shredding NCO, and Human Resources NCO. Other than sending letters, shredding paper, and chatting on the phone with the girls from the Logistics unit, they also serve coffee to the officers during their board meetings. These young-adult Israeli women are the stars of “Zero Motivation,” a 2014 Israeli film produced and directed by Talya Lavie. In a 2014 Haaretz interview, Lavie addressed her unconventional choice to focus on bored clerks in an army film: “The fact that the army has mandatory service for both men and women makes it look like an egalitarian and progressive institution, but within that system [there is] a huge number of women whose job is [primarily] a status symbol.” Although highly prevalent, this issue is often excluded from the Zionist (liberal) narrative of military service which commonly centers around notions of war and contribution to the community. This is exemplified in almost every scene of the film when an officer reminds the clerks that (male) soldiers are dying in the battle field while they waste their time and contribute nothing to the common good. Although it hovers over every scene, the battlefield in which the soldiers are dying is abstract: the war is distant and the enemy is unnamed. Thus, the battlefield is as symbolic as gender equality; both signify a certain narrative that renders the military institution as progressive and its actions as protective. The first part of this narrative is often constructed by a liberal feminist discourse that reveres the integration of women in the IDF as the epitome of the feminist struggle for gender equality. Furthermore, this discourse views women’s integration as a sign of “modernity,” indicating that Israeli society is on the “progress train” amongst the rest of the “modern world.” However, a closer look into the effects of this “integration” and the roots of this discourse reveals that the inclusion of women in the Israeli military serves to assert male and colonial domination, while providing it with a symbolic moral justification: gender-equality.
The liberal feminist plight for gender equality in the military stems from the historically ubiquitous status of women as inferior citizens who depend on the protection of the state and its men (Tickner 252). In militarist societies citizenship is hierarchically structured according to the “republican ethos” which defines membership in the community according to the citizen’s contribution to the “common good” (Sasson-Levy 742). Along these lines, Orna Sasson-Levy writes, “The main protagonist of the republican ethos is the male combat soldier who embodies the good citizen who is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the country” (742). While men have been able to perform acts of sacrifice in the defense of the state, women’s participation in society has been “restricted” to “traditional feminine” roles: mothers, caring professions, teachers, and nurses, to name a few (Tickner 252). Thus, women have not had an “equal” chance to prove their commitment to their societies, and in effect their citizenship was considered inferior to that of men’s. Consequently, the liberal feminist answer to this gendered hierarchy of citizenship was demanding “to allow women access to all military roles- including combat- as an avenue to equate women’s citizenship to men’s” (Sasson-Levy 743). Indeed, since the mid twentieth century the rate of women’s participation in Western militaries has grown.
Consequently, liberal feminism has celebrated the woman soldier as a symbol of success indicative of the “progress” Western nation states have made in their “march” to gender equality, as well as their belonging to the “modern” world. Cynthia Enloe writes, “By the early twenty-first century, the woman soldier seemed to have become a globalized icon of the “modern woman:” she was breaking into a traditionally masculinized domain […] she was wielding authority and proving that she could be the protector, not simply the protected- she too could ‘die for her country’” (63). And so, the woman-soldier proved that women could perform the highest form of patriotism and be “equal participants” in society. Following a 2000 ruling in the European Court that required EU member states to recruit women to their militaries on an equal basis, the Israeli government amended its conscription law and provided women soldiers equal access to (almost) all positions in the IDF.
Since the 2000 amendment, the discourse around integration of women in the military has been a contested terrain between religious Zionism and liberal feminism. Liberal feminist responses to the religious Zionist claims explicitly draw on liberal tropes of modernity and progress. For example, in a 2017 discussion in the Israeli Security Council about the issue of combat women soldiers, parliament member Stav Shafir (Labor Party) said, “I was fortunate enough to be one of the first women to have an equal opportunity to try out for a pilot position. Today, there is a wave of people with backwards world views, and they are trying to do the impossible and freeze time. It is simply not going to happen and we [plural female] are breaking more and more glass ceilings.” Women’s ability to become fighter pilots is thus constructed as a feminist achievement. However, the victims of Israeli airstrikes, many of whom are women, are not mentioned in this framework of feminist achievement. The Israeli oppression of Palestinians is eliminated from the liberal feminist discourse of “progress.”
This liberal feminist discourse of “progress” resembles to a large extent the liberal Zionist discourse of civilizational superiority (“modernity”) which has been ubiquitously used to justify Israeli dominance over occupied Palestine. Indeed, liberal Zionist discourse has constructed Israel as a “modern” state- part of the West and Western civilization. For example, in his 2015 address to the UN the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was especially dependent on this discourse when he claimed, “Israel stands out as a towering beacon of enlightenment and tolerance […] Israel stands in the breach – proudly and courageously, defending freedom and progress. Israel is civilization’s front line in the battle against barbarism.” Many scholars have critiqued civilizational discourse as extremely essentialist and racist. Specifically, I find Talal Assad’s critique especially relevant, as he argues that “there is no such thing as a clash of civilizations because there are no self-contained societies to which fixed civilizational values correspond” (12). However, militarist societies that have integrated women into their militaries assigned themselves a fixed civilizational value of “modernity” (Enloe 63). Along these lines, Talal Assad writes, “All constitutional states rest on a space of violence that they call legitimate” (29). The space of violence on which the Israeli state rests, is the liberal Zionist claim to “modernity.” The liberal feminist discourse of gender equality, with its disregard to colonial violence, enhances this space of violence with another foil of moral justification.
Alternatively, a more nuanced Israeli liberal feminist discourse recognizes that the integration of women in a military system that has an inherent masculinist structure and culture actually has served to cement the patriarchal gender hierarchy of citizenship rather than dismantle it. For example, in a 2009 article in Haaretz, parliament member Merav Michaeli argued that in the IDF
it is clear who is in charge, who works for whom. Women finish their military service with that lesson understood well and internalized […] Men understand this lesson too. They know very well who makes decisions and who obeys, who has the power and who is the subordinate. This is how the military creates a patriarchal society […] A hierarchy in which the top is occupied by the praised male combat soldier, and at the bottom the woman who’s role is to provide service: fold parachutes, serve coffee and comfort, including legitimacy for sexual harassment.
As Michaeli is a prominent member of the mainstream Labor Party, this critique may appear highly transgressive. However, I argue that it is limited to the discrimination that mostly secular Jewish Israeli women face in the militarist Israeli society. In effect, the limited scope of this critique conforms to and perpetuates the erasure of the Israeli occupation of Palestine from the liberal Zionist narrative of the IDF. Further, the connection between male domination of women and Israeli colonial domination of Palestine goes unrecognized, and thus the liberal feminist critique is ironically unable to be actually transgressive.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine has everything to do with liberal feminism. The erasure of the first from the discursive space of the latter translates into a liberal feminist compliance with the systematic violence, oppression, humiliation, and discrimination experienced daily by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under the Israeli occupation. Thus, the only symbolism I find in the images of the woman-soldier, the female fighter-pilot, and the bored soldier clerks, is the enlistment of feminism to the defense of occupation and colonial violence.