Why Some Israeli Mothers Raise Their Sons as Cowards

In the 18 years between the ultrasound and conscription, mothers fear that their boys will serve in combat units. In her new book, psychoanalyst Hanni Mann-Shalvi says this concern can unconsciously lead them to repress their son’s masculine qualities

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An Israeli soldier during a divisional exercise near the Gaza Strip in February 2017.
An Israeli soldier during a divisional exercise near the Gaza Strip in February 2017. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz

The first (and last) time I ever saw my father smoking a cigarette was a few months after I was conscripted, at the ceremony in which I officially became a combat soldier, I had just taken part in a 90-kilometer (56 mile) march that ended on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill – where my father had fought in the Six-Day War, 37 years before. He was wounded in battle and lost most of his buddies there. I knew the hill well because, as far back as I can remember, the whole family would go there every year on Jerusalem Day for the memorial ceremony.

At the time, I understood the symbolism of that cigarette. But I’m not sure I was able to peer deep into my father’s soul and the emotions he was feeling that day, when he saw me complete a long, grueling march to the place that had so much significance for him.

About seven months earlier, he and my mother had accompanied me to the Israel Defense Forces induction center and waited for me to board the bus (they had already seen my two sisters join the army). They looked worried but did not share their feelings with me. I assume that most parents don’t tell their children about their own fears and anxieties. These concerns are different for every parent, since each carries around his or her own psychological baggage, as well as moral baggage – both are affected, among other things, by the environment in which they grew up and the traumas they experienced throughout their lives.

A person can experience a tension between the psychological and moral baggage: For example, a parent can educate their child to undertake significant and risky military service out of a sense of responsibility toward the state, and at the same time have fears and anxiety about that same issue.

In my case, for example, my parents – both together and individually – believed I had to do combat service. The seeds of this were sown not only at Ammunition Hill, but also in stories I heard during my childhood: About Grandfather Amos, who served in the Harel Brigade of the Palmach prestate underground Jewish militia in the War of Independence; or Grandfather Yitzhak, who served in the Alexandroni Brigade; and heroic tales about other family members that accompanied me over the years. The community also had a strong influence on my decision to enlist in a combat unit.

However, when we dig beneath the surface stratum of values and ideology, do we discern fears and anxieties in many parents? What goes through a parent’s mind when their son joins a combat unit? When do they actually start thinking about this issue – and does it have an effect on their son?

According to researcher Dr. Hanni Mann-Shalvi, thinking about a son’s expected conscription is on parents’ minds right from the moment the ultrasound reveals the child’s gender, and continues throughout his life.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers taking part in a divisional exercise near the Gaza Strip, February 2017.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

In her book “From Ultrasound to Army: The Unconscious Trajectories of Masculinity in Israel” (Karnac, 2016), Mann-Shalvi quotes a father of five sons who decided to leave Israel with his family. “Every time they say, ‘You have a baby boy,’ I hear three knocks on the door. I cannot wait at the window for the next 15 years,” he explains. The author writes that the three knocks are the army representative’s knocks on the door to inform the family of a son’s death, and waiting at the window is “for a son to return from the army – or the alternative.”

‘Struck by lightning’

Mann-Shalvi is director of the International Institute for Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Therapy Training, and the book is based on her doctoral thesis. She interviewed couples who were the parents of sons prior to a significant event, such as the son’s birth, his entry into first grade, his bar mitzvah or his conscription into the army. She told the parents she had come to discuss their feelings and emotions about raising children, but at quite an early certain stage, she writes, all the interviews veered to the subject of anxieties about a son’s military service, without her making any explicit mention of the issue.

“When my first son reported to the induction center, I felt like I had been struck by lightning,” Mann-Shalvi says. “I suddenly had the realization that I had been carrying that moment around with me since the day he was born. Before then, I never thought about it. From the induction center, I drove to a workshop I was leading and from the moment I related that my son had been conscripted that morning, the whole workshop was about the conscription of sons. This was very powerful. I assumed I would find a lot of professional material on this topic, but I was wrong.”

According to Mann-Shalvi, the awareness that a son is destined to be conscripted is not confined only to thoughts of how the waiting time at the induction center will look, or what will happen during his three years of army service. It is influential much earlier than that – affecting the way the son develops and the person he grows up to be. In effect, the knowledge that a son will one day be conscripted into the army impacts the way his parents raise him.

The first time my father came home after he was conscripted, with red boots and a paratrooper’s shoulder tag, his mother (my grandmother) asked him whether he absolutely had to serve in the Paratroopers Brigade. I heard that story many times. In those days, the Paratroopers Brigade was considered the spearhead and pinnacle of the Israeli army, and my father took care to transmit that esprit de corps to me as well, along with the sense of commitment and responsibility inherent in performing significant military service.

During the year before my conscription, my mother tried to persuade me that I could contribute more to the army if I enlisted in an elite artillery unit. She really believed I should serve in a combat unit, but perhaps she wanted to hope I would emerge from my army service in better physical and mental shape.

This corresponds with a finding that arose from Mann-Shalvi’s research: Unconsciously, mothers behave toward their male children in a way that will cause them to be in less dangerous places during their future military service.

One of the ways they do this is by pushing their boys to serve in intelligence units or in a computer-related position – so they will not be at on the front line, yet will spend their army time in relatively high-status positions and make a significant contribution to the state.

Hanni Mann-Shalvi's "From Ultrasound to Army: The Unconscious Trajectories of Masculinity in Israel"Credit: Karnac Books

There are a wealth of explanations and excuses for this, but it is reasonable to assume that the main reason is the anxiety that exists beneath the surface.

Moreover, some of the mothers Mann-Shalvi interviewed tried to unconsciously combat their sons’ masculine qualities by encouraging traits diametrically opposed to bravery and courageousness. One of them even said her strategy was to raise her sons as cowards.

“From the moment he began crawling, I got wariness into him. I don’t want him to be overly brave and go for overly frightening things,” she explained. “He doesn’t have to be the one who jumps into the fire as though there’s no tomorrow. I want him to think a bit before he does something. He doesn’t have to be a great hero in the army. I don’t want heroes.”

Similar strategies included keeping the son close to the mother, being more involved in his life and encouragement of “feminine” traits. “It was almost as though there had been an advance educational strategy, from pregnancy up until recruitment, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious: to control the process of the son’s growing up in order to preserve him as a little child, shaping his character with as few masculine combat traits as possible while encouraging the feminine side and ignoring the son’s sexual development, and to inhibit the process of the son’s separation from his mother, with the goal of trying to fight boys’ natural tendency to continue into becoming combat soldiers,” writes Mann-Shalvi.

Failing as a mother

Mann-Shalvi believes this doesn’t stem from the number of soldiers actually losing their lives during military service. On the contrary: the number of young casualties from road accidents is much higher, yet parents don’t mention this as an anxiety they feel in the early stages of rearing their children. Therefore, she sought out unconscious factors that might create anxiety connected to military service, and found that Israel’s draft law makes it difficult for mothers to fulfill their roles.

The mother has two main tasks, says Mann-Shalvi: The first is to raise the son while safeguarding his health and life; the second is to enable him to develop a personal identity that is masculine and separate from his mother. In this Israeli reality, writes Mann-Shalvi, “In successfully fulfilling one maternal task, the mother fails in the other. ... Mothers who found themselves needing to choose between these two tasks opted to protect their sons by keeping them close, sometimes at the cost of sabotaging the masculine individuation developmental process.”

The father, too, grapples with the contradiction between his two tasks: protecting the family; and serving as a masculine role model for his son. The father fears that stories about his experiences in the military will push his son into combat military service, which is liable to end in death. Nevertheless, in order to serve as a kind of role model, some fathers talk occasionally about their own experiences in the army, but are careful not to do so with too much enthusiasm.

Fathers who served in a combat corps and understand the profound significance of the role are in a state of dissonance regarding their son. If the son enlists in a combat unit, there will also be a reversal of roles and ultimately it will be the son who is protecting the father, not the other way around.

Mann-Shalvi says the contradiction between the mother’s and father’s different roles lead them both to experience anxiety about raising their sons. When they are not aware of this and do not grasp it, more anxiety is transmitted to the sons, interfering with the process of their development as individuals and affecting the formation of their identities as men. She adds that the contradiction also affects the dynamic between parents – the mother casts the father’s masculinity into question, in order to damage his ability to be a role model for the son, while the father becomes more passive toward the son.

An Israeli soldier during a divisional exercise near the Gaza Strip in February 2017. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

She explains that the army is not a one-time event at the age of 18, but instead interferes unconsciously in the parenting processes, enters into the couple’s relationship and therefore also shapes the processes of transforming the Israeli son into a man. In fact, masculinity itself is affected – as is femininity.

Readers of the book may feel that Mann-Shalvi’s conclusions do not fit the values and ideologies of the parents, and with the process of socialization in Israel. One possible explanation is that there has been little attention given to the effect the army has on the psyche of the individual – the son or the parent. Perhaps one way to resolve the “contradiction” between the values and ideology on the one hand and the anxieties and fears on the other could be rooted through an understanding of the process of comradeship in Israel.

Power of the community

About a year ago, a few childhood friends got together in Amsterdam and we talked about our military service. It was there, far from Israel and about a decade after we had been demobilized, that we were able to analyze soberly the reasons that led us into combat service. We talked about the influence of the family and the power of the community to affect young people.

The clearness with which we made decisions back in high school had dissipated – and had given way for deep discussions. Opinions were varied, but one thing was undisputable: In the moshav where I grew up, the community played a crucial role in the way we developed. The community did not leave us with many alternatives: A soldier must serve in a combat unit and aspire to be in the most elite unit.

The message from the educational system and the community was that a combat soldier has a higher social status. In elementary school, they told us about the convoy of 35 Haganah fighters who were killed trying to reach the blockaded Gush Etzion kibbutzim. On Memorial Day, high school students carried wreaths from the elementary school to the cemetery. On the school trip to Poland, after we had received letters from our families on Friday night, they read out a letter written by a brother of one of the female students – a fighter in a combat unit – who wrote her about the importance of a strong Israeli army.

These are just a few examples. Among parents, the discourse also took pride in a son who was serving in an elite combat unit and the great things he was doing in the military.

Mann-Shalvi is a psychoanalyst, and it is from this perspective she examines social processes and significant events in the life of the Jewish people, such as the Holocaust – not their collective and sociological influence, but rather their impact on the psyche of the individual. That said, Mann-Shalvi’s research chimes with previous sociological studies that examined military masculinity in Israel.

A society that sanctifies nationalism and masculine militancy preserves a hegemonic model of masculinity and leaves little room for a different, more emotional and more inclusive masculinity. On the other hand, some of the parents give a “contra” when they try to question military masculinity. Thus, instead of creating a more balanced masculinity that would include both strength and sensitivity, a kind of “tug of war” exists in Israeli society – between the community and society as a whole and the parents themselves over the son’s individual masculine identity.

This is another “battlefield,” motivated by values and ideologies on the one hand, and deep anxieties on the other. To this day, consideration of military masculinity is done largely from the social and national perspective. But Mann-Shalvi succeeds in dissecting the psyches of Israeli parents, and presenting what they experience during the 18 years from ultrasound to conscription.

This subject is very elusive, since it is hard to identify the parents’ patterns of action, which are often totally unconscious. Those who are most affected by it are the men themselves, who are not afforded an opportunity to develop a normal, sane masculinity. Ultimately, though, the challenge to arrive at an understanding on this is incumbent upon all of us.