One of the more familiar images that came from the War of Independence was the picture of the Palmachnikit – the girl soldier fighting for her State alongside the young men of Israel. The truth is that even in 1948, the involvement of women was less than that image might have suggested, but there were indeed women who were involved on the front line or in defense of settlements. Nevertheless the 1948 war was the last time that women were anywhere near the front line in the Israeli army. Fears about the fate of the women if they were captured in battle, caused a pulling back of women to rear line and supportive roles. Moreover, the aforementioned National Service Law of 1949 which set an identical statutory period of military service for women and men was soon changed with male service being increased to two and a half years and finally three, while women’s service stayed the same. Women’s service was gradually downplayed in the sense that it was not taken as seriously as the men’s.

There were a number of indicators to this process, in addition to the length of service. Married women (as opposed to married men) were exempted from service and reserve duty for all women was cut down to a minimum so that many women were never called at all. The jobs that were available for women soldiers became almost totally restricted to a few important but auxiliary support roles. Many women went into secretarial roles of one kind or another and most women soldiers became removed from any feeling of real military involvement.

It was a process not unlike that in which women in collective workers’ settlements had been alienated from productive work branches and had been relegated to the service branches. But whereas the women of the early kvutzot and kibbutzim had been a small, ideologically driven, elite force, here the group consisted of the young women of Israel. Many women became disaffected in their service jobs. It was relatively hard to sustain a sense of motivation and national service when military action was kept safely at arm’s length.

Moreover, the ubiquitous sexual innuendoes born of male camaraderie in a place where the men were active and the women, on the whole, were passive, was something which could easily undermine any sense of taking part in a national challenge. So much for army service and the idea of the dedicated woman soldier fighting for her country with her male comrades. For many women the only fighting they were likely to do with their male comrades was in fighting them off!

This of course has become part of a larger issue, that of the maleness of a society where the army plays a role as one of the more “sacred” elements. It has often been pointed out that it is extremely difficult for men, who spend a considerable slice of life on an ongoing basis in uniform, in an overwhelmingly masculine institution, to leave their army attitudes at the door of their home when they leave their period of service.

The Israeli army, of necessity, like all armies of the world, is a haven of maleness, and this inevitably spills into the society as a whole. The army has a shine and a prestige to it that lasts, for many people, an entire lifetime. High military status tends to translate into civilian life, and provides an alternative or a complement to financial wealth as a main constituent of male status - and by extension of status in general - in the country as a whole. Military service is an important glue that holds Israel together in terms of the common language that it creates. If half the population is, almost by definition, excluded from the camaraderie of this experience, then clearly this has implications for the wider society and for the feeling of the women in that society. If military prowess has been a key element in the successful transition of many army officers to political careers, and if military experience is seen as a central component of a serious politician’s ability to understand the national challenges that affect Israel, what does that say about the chances of women to rise to central positions in the political process?



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0