Sexism and Aggression: What We Learn From Israeli Army T-shirts

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A soldier wears a T-shirt that says 'every Arab mother should know that her son's fate is in my hands.'
A soldier wears a T-shirt that says 'every Arab mother should know that her son's fate is in my hands.'Credit: Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

There’s a picture of a pregnant woman in a bra and underwear behind a target. Next to it is the caption, “A sharpshooter, because Plan B is just expensive.” This is a sniper army course T-shirt. Another army course shirt bears the slogan: “I’m sitting and thinking about you. Who are you sitting on when you think of me?”

These are just two examples of the kinds of shirts that soldiers in combat units of the Israel Defense Forces have had made at the end of their basic training or at another stage in their army training. Shirts such as the ones from the combat engineering corps with the phrase “dismantling a bombshell.” with an explicit illustration of sexual intercourse, caused a real storm about a year ago. Givati brigade soldiers produced another with a drawing of a downcast naked woman with the caption: “You think you’ve been raped? The end of the training program for Shaked Div. 12.” The implication is that the soldiers in the Shaked unit suffered worse.

The tradition of the T-shirts got its start in the Nahal brigade in the 1980s, and initially it was confined to that brigade, but it ultimately spread throughout the army. The explicit slogans and illustrations, however, are identified with combat units. The shirts have a certain style that is expressed, for example, in the choice of a regular T-shirt or one with 3/4-length sleeves. And then of course there’s the style of the illustration and the font chosen for the caption.

Orna Sasson-Levy.Credit: Courtesy

As Prof. Orna Sasson-Levy, the head of the sociology and anthropology department at Bar-Ilan University, sees it, “These shirts are part of a culture of environmental sexual harassment in that they express a perception of the woman as a sexual object, contempt for anyone who is considered different and the encouragement of violence.”

She recounts the case of a female soldier serving in a prestigious IDF unit who was also responsible for illustrating several of these shirts. “She told me that helicopters fly very low, so at the end of a course or a phase [of training], she drew Marilyn Monroe standing with legs spread apart and her skirt flying upwards. The helicopter is flying through her legs and the caption is ‘How low can you go?’ She did this herself, and it was only after she finished her army service that she began to have an awakening, admitting to me that she is embarrassed, that she doesn’t understand why she took part in this.”

A T-shirt transfer that says 'Women's place is at the range.' The Hebrew word for shooting range rhymes with the Hebrew word for kitchen.Credit: Shachar Atwan

There are those, however, who view the slogans as legitimate joking around among combat soldiers, a kind of Israeli army version of “locker room talk,” as President-elect Donald Trump called it in explaining away sexual comments caught on video. Yoaz Hendel, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies in Jerusalem, notes: “This involves a bunch of soldiers, not poets, and serving in the Golani [brigade] is probably more chauvinistic that working in a fashion firm,” he says. “When the atmosphere is very, very masculine then the jokes are in accordance. And sometimes they’re better and sometimes not. All told it involves major coincidences and depends upon who got a few hours of free time and went to print these shirts.

“It makes sense that the shirts are more aggressive and combative than those dealing with pluralism or repairing the world. It’s rather natural for young men who are put together and whose goal in life is to fight and defend the country,” Hendel says. Noting that it involves inside jokes, he adds: “The Americans have college where they make a mess. Israelis have the end-of-training shirts. You can live with this.”

One of the arguments has it that the shirts fulfill an important social function for the soldiers as a kind of release valve that lets them express a little of the anger and resentment that has accumulated during their army service. But Sasson-Levy is insistent that the opposite is true. Studies conducted in the U.S. army show a strong connection between environmental harassment – such as sexual jokes and comments, shirts with insulting slogans and the like – and individual harassment, she says. In places where there has not been environmental harassment, 99 percent of respondents reported no personal harassment, while in locations with a culture of generalized harassment, more than 75 percent of those surveyed reported being personally victimized by harassment. In other words, environmental harassment, which is considered an accepted part of Israeli military culture, is a source for the legitimation of harassment of the individual.

As Sasson-Levy sees it, environmental harassment can be at least as dangerous as individual harassment, if not more so, because it is done in public as part of a general culture, making it that much more difficult to complaint about. “It’s hard to stop an entire unit from singing ‘Ruti the Whore,’ or ‘Ruti is Sucking the Whole Company’ or banning soldiers from singing on the bus. When a group of 30 [male] soldiers yell something like that at a female soldier, she can’t even complain, ‘I was sexually harassed.’ Who exactly would she complain to?”

“This is a culture passed on from generation to generation, and there is no regulation, no punishment, no legislation,” Sasson-Levy says. “Here and there a commander issues a notice saying, ‘Shame on you,’ but there’s nothing serious. These shirts are insulting, putting female soldiers on the defensive, with their wanting to run away and be invisible and causing them to doubt themselves, among other things. In other words, the harassment works – maintaining the definition of the army as an exclusively male organization, even if the goal is not conscious.”

A top that says 'Think you were raped? End of course ... Division 12.'Credit: Shachar Atwan

“The result of this is that women don’t feel confident in the military sphere, and even if female soldiers try to convince themselves [that it’s a joke], that’s precisely how to show what the hierarchy is,” Sasson-Levy insists.

Ofer Nordheimer Nur.Credit: Ari Davidovich

The sexist shirts also turn up in unexpected places. “What’s amazing is that you see them on the street on foreign workers and even on Palestinians,” says Ofer Nordheimer Nur of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Tel Aviv University. “You see all kinds of shirts with slogans such as ‘I’m in Golani’ or with semi-amusing slogans, which may have been bought at a second-hand shop or just picked up off the street. Even in Gaza, you can see shirts like these.”

Danny Kaplan.Credit: Faith Baginsky / Bar Ilan University

As Danny Kaplan of the Gender Studies program at Bar-Ilan University sees it, the regular appearance in recent years of the crude T-shirts has raised doubts about the fitness of the army to rein in the phenomenon. “As an organization built on the hegemony of masculinity, it carries out ritual hazing ceremonies,” he says. “[Male] soldiers need to channel sexual feelings and violence in part through all kinds of trainee ceremonies or ceremonies directed against those who are different.”

This doesn’t involve instilling nationalistic attitudes but rather what he calls the link between the male soldiers’ sexuality and comradeship among combat soldiers and with the nation. “It’s mainly the connection between the soldiers themselves and their attitude toward others in their space: women, Arabs, homosexuals, etc.

“These are ways to channel sexual feeling,” he says. “Channeling of sexual feeling is needed on the organizational level. That’s what the soldier does. Actually the entire organization is built upon this, so as much as it would try to play it as politically correct, it would be a different organization if these things didn’t exist. For many years, senior people in the army have been trying to eliminate all kinds of phenomena like this, to shake them off or condemn them, but it appears to be deeply rooted in the masculinity of the combat soldier.”

A T-shirt transfer that says 'every sniper and his deviation [also perversion].'Credit: Shachar Atwan

Sasson-Levy says the heart of the matter is the masculine perspectives in the IDF, which requires a cultural shift to change. “There are elements of military masculinity that are apparently necessary to motivate [soldiers] to action and there are others that are destructive. In the army, there is the thought that they are dependent on each other, meaning that you can motivate people to action in the name of masculinity only if you present femininity as inferior and humiliating at the same time. I think that there can and should be new models of masculinity that are healthier both for the men themselves and for their surroundings,“ she states. But she adds that it has to come from the top. “It’s not a decree of fate but it is perceived as if it is.”

But Kaplan thinks what’s most important is not content or slogans but where it is presented. “It relates to the question of what is currently considered private and what is considered public. It’s a little like Facebook.”

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