A Feminist Achievement or More Israeli Militarism?

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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Yesh Atid's lawmaker Orna Barbivai, in 2019.
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

The appointment of MK Orna Barbivai as the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is a landmark event. For the first time in Israel, a woman will lead this important committee.

Barbivai, a legislator from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and a retired major general, headed the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate. Should the appointment of a woman who is part of the flesh and blood of the defense establishment be considered a feminist achievement? A shattering of the glass ceiling? What significance does such an appointment have?

Especially these days, when some people ensure that the flames keep burning, we should ask whether any changes in the committee’s policy are to be expected. Will there be a change in the way decisions are made, and in the nature of these decisions?

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“Barbivai said on the day she was appointed to head the committee: ‘I believe as a woman that this is an opportunity to say to other women watching us that there is no role a woman can’t fill,’” says Prof. Orna Sasson-Levy, an expert on militarism and gender and an adviser to the president of Bar-Ilan University on gender issues.

“From this perspective, this is surely another achievement for women. I’m not sure it should be called a feminist achievement, but it’s a case of another broken glass ceiling, one called militarism, which usually involves a very tight link between masculinity and anything associated with defense issues. In Israel, this link is so tight that it’s hard to breach it; it’s very difficult for women to advance in the army and other defense-related organizations.

“Female representation among the top brass is so poor that the number of women colonels can be counted on one hand. So it’s obvious that the choice of Barbivai to a civilian post responsible for the oversight of defense issues is a significant achievement merely because she’s a woman.

“Given that, is this a feminist achievement? For me, an achievement would be the choosing of a woman who brings nonmilitary thinking to the system, or if the oversight of defense organizations is done from a civilian, not a military perspective. Since Barbivai comes from the very heart of a military system, I’m not sure she can provide a different mode of thought that can change the committee’s policies.

“On the contrary, it’s possible that precisely because she’s a token – a fig leaf implying the advancement of women, the sole one in a field of men, the only woman who’s managed to reach such a position – she’ll have to tread with great caution and act just as her predecessors did in order to amass power, authority and faith in her abilities.”

So does this mean that a woman who reaches senior positions adopts male patterns of behavior?

“I’m not concerned that she’s adopted male patterns, but that over the years she’s adopted military modes of thinking,” Sasson-Levy says. As we all know, it’s hard to shake off such patterns. So I assume that she’ll be as good or bad in that role just as any man would be. But if we have no expectations of a different style, a civilian and critical one – and we do – it’s better for a woman to fill the role, as she herself said, since ‘there is no role a woman can’t fill.”

Sasson-Levy adds that for her, a key challenge facing this committee, “aside from issues of budgets and so on, is the ability to distinguish between true security threats and fabricated or inflated ones designed to serve political agendas, and to shape policies based on such a distinction.”

From the perspective of liberal feminism, which focuses on equality based on the belief that women can do anything men do, we can welcome the first appointment of its kind. From the perspective of radical feminism, which tries to change the entire system from its roots while disputing the assumption that the masculine model should be emulated, this is a less-impressive achievement.

But on the long road ahead, such appointments are necessary, mainly as an initial phase, so that there are women among the decision-makers. This will pave the way for ensuring the possibility of change. The fact that we’re only at such an early phase underscores what a long way there is to go.

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