Sex and the IDF: The Army's Role in Defining Gender and Sexual Norms

A new book showcases the dominant role of photography in creating fantasy and sexual reality in Israel's army.

Gilad Meizer
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Gilad Meizer

"Fantazia Shel Medina: Tatzlumei Chayalot Tzahal Ve'erotizatziya Shel Hamilitarism Ha-ezrachi bi-Yisrael" ("Fantasy of the State: Photographs of IDF Female Soldiers and the Eroticization of Civil Militarism in Israel" ), by Chava Brownfield-Stein. Resling, 245 pages, NIS 89 (Hebrew)

For close to four millennia, women have served in various roles in the world's armies. Prior to 1900, they usually filled auxiliary and service functions, and in most cases were not part of the universal conscription of a given nation. Until the 20th century, this somewhat questionable privilege was reserved for men only.

In the 20th century, during two world wars, and especially the second, more and more women were drafted into military service. The most extreme example was in the Red Army, where Soviet women assumed active combat roles. In Israel, as Chava Brownfield-Stein argues in "Fantasy of the State," the law passed in 1949 by the First Knesset, mandating compulsory military service for men and women, "constituted the legal basis for a phenomenon that was highly unusual for its time: the universal conscription of both women and men of 18 years of age." Brownfield-Stein, who teaches culture studies at Beit Berl's School of Art-Hamidrasha, notes, "Since passage of that law, and because of that legislation, the induction of women into the army and the modes of their military service have played a decisive role in shaping the relationship between the army and society, and in the various ways in which 'cultural civil militarism' has been interpreted in Israel."

Brownfield-Stein's modest but important book, based on her doctoral thesis, makes no attempt to study the phenomenon and impact on Israeli society (in many different areas ) of compulsory military service for women. Instead, it focuses on one aspect, which appears to be of marginal importance but has an unquestionably decisive presence: the dialectical relationship between the fact that, on the one hand, photographs of women soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces were a reflection of local societal values, between 1948 and 1968 and, on the other hand, the fact that the photos also served as an educational and ideological tool, and influenced the molding of those or alternative values.

One should bear in mind that "Fantasy of the State" deals with a different world, very different from the present one in which every teenager has his/her own cell phone. In that former world, a camera was a luxury item in Israel and the realm of official images of the state was controlled by a rigid propaganda machine and a strict and obedient censor - particularly when it came to military matters. The photographs in the book (and, in general, the vast majority of photos taken in the era in question ) were taken by official government photographers, or by press photographers who had been trained by or received the approval of the IDF.

The images, particularly of women soldiers, that were created by these photographers - who, as Brownfield-Stein reminds us, were all men - created, suited, replicated and reinforced the dialectical model she describes in her book. However, she goes beyond merely describing two phenomena whose existence, in retrospect, seems virtually self-evident: first, the use of women (in this case, soldiers ) for the purposes of forging an image, creating propaganda and educating the nation, and, second, the use of photography as a primary tool in this process.

'Theater of glances'

The heart of "Fantasy of the State" is encompassed in a term coined by the writer: "erotic militarism." In each chapter, she examines what she calls the "various methods for creating and portraying excitement and enjoyment in the context of the military establishment and the photographs of women soldiers." And there were many methods. One was to focus on the female body, from head to toe, and on various ways in which it was cared for and adorned: shoes, pantyhose, skirts versus pants, open shirt collars, makeup, hair and head coverings.

The photos focused on the female body in motion and at times including rest periods in army tents (where they were photographed lying scantily clad on field cots. In this context, Brownfield-Stein expects us to ask: What is the photographer doing here? What is his target audience? What is the photo's purpose? What is the result of the dissemination of such images (which - one must recall - are considered to be "official" )? The women are also photographed marching, participating in parades and ceremonies, just leisurely walking about the grounds of an army base (a route that leads to seduction and harassment and so on ), and in a variety of encounters between the civilian and military realms.

One of the most interesting chapters centers on photography on army bases themselves, which Brownfield-Stein calls a "theater of glances." Here as in elsewhere in the book, her point of departure is the military regulation stating that, "the grounds of the living quarters of female soldiers are out of bounds for all male soldiers of all ranks. No male soldier shall enter the grounds of these quarters even to conduct repair work unless he has received proper authorization."

Not much needs to be said about the unrealistic nature of such a regulation, or about the the implications of violating it. The regulation exists because, as Jacques Lacan claims, behind every prohibition lurks a hidden desire. The sexual desires of young men and young women serving together on a military base will always find an outlet, despite such a regulation and the punitive measures meted out for its violation.

However, one must ask here: What were male photographers doing in the living quarters of female soldiers - especially, as can be seen in several of the photos in the book, when their dress is either immodest or improper? Apparently, Brownfield-Stein explains, the photographer (and his camera ) received authorization to "correct," to raise the awareness and bring it in line with proper standards. The act of photographing, she notes, "immerses the military apparatus in a libidinal vortex and brings about the eroticization of the military space."

Some people might claim that the so-called military space does not need a camera or photographers in order to be steeped in libido and erotica. But for its part, Brownfield-Stein's book showcases the dominant role of photography in creating fantasy and sexual reality in the IDF, as well as the centrality of the army in defining and disseminating gender and sexual norms in Israel's civil society.

The publication of "Fantasy of the State" raises two substantial questions. Since this intelligent and concisely written book deals first and foremost with the mutual influence of ideology and images, why is the printing of the photos, some of them taken by Israel's best photographers, of such poor quality? In most cases, it is hard to distinguish in the photos the details the author describes in such an admirably meticulous manner. The second question is: Why are the textual references to the images so complicated as to be almost incomprehensible? Why is the number of the particular photograph being described not mentioned in the body of the text? The relationship between text and visual image starts here.

The rest of the book - Brownfield-Stein's choice of subjects, her arguments and her methods of analysis - is fascinating.

Gilad Meizer is an art scholar and a curator.

A Military Policeman checking the length of a soldier's skirt, 1969.Credit: IPPA

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