Opinion

Feminism and the Army Don’t Mix, Even in Israel

Women soldiers in the IDF.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Israel Women’s Network welcomed the decision of Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi to extend the pilot project for integrating women in combat roles in the Armored Corps. “What happens in the Israel Defense Forces,” explained executive director Michal Gera Margaliot last week, “affects civil society… As long as that’s the case, we must ensure that the welfare of the female soldiers and their human dignity are maintained.”

The declaration by the Women’s Network is problematic for a number of important reasons, and this is an opportunity to explain the significance of the chief of staff’s decision. Let’s begin with the fact that there is no reason to welcome the decision as a feminist achievement. The chief of staff decided to avoid making a decision – which in the opinion of his predecessor was necessary at this point – to declare the pilot a success and allow the integration of women as tank operators.

We will remind you that there was no pilot prior to the integration of women as pilots and navigators. It was a matter of principle, which now is no longer controversial. There was a reason why among the hardalim (ultra-Orthodox Zionists) there were some who accepted Kochavi’s decision: It would not require secular women serving with religious men. Moreover, the rhetoric that accompanied the entire process reinforced the inferiority of women, who at most will be assigned to protect the borders, in order to free the men for more highly regarded combat roles.

When he recently said that there was no intention of allowing “women to storm Emek Habacha,” (the site of a major battle in the 1973 Yom Kippur War), former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was not dismissing the warnings of Armored Corps veterans – he was mocking the weakness of the women.

There is no feminist achievement here. And in welcoming the step, the Women’s Network was acknowledging the centrality of the army in determining the status of women in civil society. Not only is this centrality becoming less valid, but if this assessment is correct, that’s the target against which feminists should fight – instead of their reinforcing it. The demand for gender equality in the army must be based on the principle of the right to fill any position in the civil service – especially under a regime of compulsory service – without empowering the military.

More important, not only is the central stream of Israeli feminism not developing into radical feminism, it is spilling over into militarization. The rhetoric stressing women’s ability to fight contributes to the idealization of engaging in violence. There’s a reason why women admit that they want to participate equally with men in exercising violence, so that they can describe their service as “meaningful.”

It’s true that militarism developed in democracies thanks to competition among social groups that accepted the Gordian knot connecting participation in military violence and human rights. A connection that characterizes the battle of LGBTs for equal military enlistment in Western societies, for example.

But this is also an intra-group competition to prove ability, among those who have already been integrated into combat roles. This proof is required especially when doubt has been cast on the ability of one group, in this case women, to fight properly, especially since their physical and emotional capabilities are an object of scorn in the male discourse. Proof of capability is translated into high motivation to exercise violence, thanks to which women are filling the ranks of Border Police and other policing battalions and freeing men for other combat roles.

This link between feminism and the army can be severed only when the service is equal (or when feminism gives up on the army as an arena for gender equality). But as long as this link is maintained, it reinforces and exploits the gender inequality in the army, in order to fuel military motivation and identification with the army’s preoccupations. That is the sophistication, even if not deliberate, reflected by the chief of staff’s behavior, and the Women’s Network has fallen into this trap.