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October 7, 2014 by

It Was a Man’s War

During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in Gaza this past summer, Israelis were glued to their screens. And more often than not, those screens showed images of men. The Israeli soldiers were men. The Hamas fighters were men. The pundits pontificating were men. And nearly all the Israeli and Palestinian casualties were men. When women did appear, they were often seen eulogizing, mourning, or struggling to reconcile with their reality. The images capture a sobering fact: Women in the region are suffering terribly from the consequences of decisions from which they are excluded. From start to finish, the latest Gaza conflict has largely been a man’s war. The Israeli negotiating team in Egypt does not include a single woman —not even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose condition for joining the current governing coalition was that she head Israeli-Palestinian negotiations….. The story is the same on Israeli television and in the country’s newspapers. Fewer than 10 percent of all experts interviewed on news programs during the war have been women.

The sexism underlying women’s exclusion from security and military leadership
has found expression in some particularly troubling statements by senior officials and commentators. Moshe Feiglin, a member of Israel’s legislature, or Knesset, recently repri- manded lawmaker Aliza Lavie for discussing a bill on sexual violence, saying that wartime is no time to be “talking about things like flowers and sexual assault.” Bar-Ilan University professor Mordechai Kedar argued on Israeli radio that the only way to stop terrorists is to threaten to rape “their sister or their mother.” The implications have not gone unnoticed. “Women are sexually assaulted every day,” Amalia Schreier, a Lavie aide who had a hand in writing the sexual-assault bill, told Feiglin. “The delegitimization of this issue has the effect of hurting and placing at risk 50 percent of the population.”

The assumption that “real” soldiers are men is widespread in Israel. Army announcements and news stories about military recruitment routinely refer to “soldiers and their wives.” Volunteers and businesses have been preparing care packages for the troops fighting in Gaza that include razors and men’s underwear (last week, a mother of a female reservist issued a request for women-oriented care packages that include bras and tampons).

The conflict in Gaza has stoked broader sexism and misogyny, too. One Orthodox group in Israel set up a 24-hour “modesty hotline” and posted large, colorful signs telling women and girls that they could “stop” Hamas rockets by wearing long skirts, long sleeves, and thick stockings. Others maintain that women should uncover their bodies to save soldiers. The latest hostilities spawned a new Facebook group called “Standing With the IDF —Maintaining a Protective Edge” (literally, a “firm cliff,” another double entendre), the purpose of which is to show women disrobing with pro-IDF paint on their bodies —and to “boost morale.”

“The perception of the role of women in this war is identical to that of the early years of the state — only it might have been better then,” wrote attorney Vardit Avidan of the Tmura Legal Center for the Prevention of Discrimination, in a column titled “Be pretty and let the IDF win” for the Israeli news site Ynet. “When female soldiers receive packages with men’s underwear and aftershave, the message is that they are not supposed to be there.”

“Women are perceived as the supportive backbone, via two roles exclusively for them: the role of the worrying mother who cooks and sends soldiers food … and the role of the supportive woman via body and sexuality … supplying fighters with their ‘needs’,” Avidan added.

The dearth of women in decision-making positions means that perspectives from 50 percent of the population are largely missing —the 50 percent who have life experiences that would add tremendous value to the conversation. Not only do women suffer from war, but they are often left to pick up the pieces resulting from violent choices made by men.

…Knesset Member Naomi Chazan says,“Human security is not just security from military attacks. It’s physical, economic, and social security. It’s security to speak your mind even when you’re a minority opinion. It means that you wake up in the morning and you have some- thing to put on the table for your kids. It means you can walk the streets at night without being afraid of being attacked. It means tolerance for the other. It also means security against attacks. But the goal of security against attacks means creating a climate for human security under the broadest terms.”

…Chazan explained,“Our job as women is not to cry and pick up the pieces. It’s to do something to make a difference.” 

from “Gaza: It’s a Man’s War,”The Atlantic Blog, August 7, 2014

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July 15, 2014 by

Religion and Gender in the Israeli Defense Forces

When twenty-five-year-old Shani Boianjiu served as an infantry instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, her job occasionally involved having to touch other soldiers—teaching her students how to hold a gun correctly, how to lie on the ground in position, or how to protect themselves from enemy attack. Although this was an acceptable part of the job and made her an excellent instructor, it also caused problems for certain soldiers, specifically religious ones.

In an essay in the New York Times in September 2012, Boianjiu described the first time this happened. She was teaching a soldier to sit correctly in the field. “I came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, gently shaking him. I wanted to explain, ‘Look how easy it is for me to shake you out of position,’ but I couldn’t, because the soldier was yelling at me like he was on fire. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’ What this meant was that he couldn’t touch or be touched by girls or women. I was his superior and trainer, but I was also a girl.”

Female soldiers have made tremendous strides in the IDF over the past two decades. According to the IDF spokesperson’s office, women make up 33 percent of the IDF, female officers with the rank of colonel doubled from 2 percent in 1999 to 4 percent today, and the percentage of female officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, from 7.3 percent in 1999 to 12.5 percent today. Moreover, over half of all soldiers in officer courses are women. During the last three years, an average of 55 percent of all staff officers in the Officers’ Training Course were women, an average of 53 percent of those OTC graduates went on to become officers in combat support positions, and an average of 3 percent of all combat officers were women. Perhaps most significantly, in March 2011, the IDF appointed Brigadier General Orna Barbivai as the first-ever female major general.

From the statistics, it’s clear that women are still a small minority of officers, but their numbers are rising. But as a country with mandatory conscription since its founding in 1948—the only country in the world in which women are also subject to this conscription—these advances for women are significant. Gone are the days when women in the army are relegated to jobs of making coffee and typing men’s memos. Also, even though, according to the IDF, some women only serve in 69 percent of the 93 percent of all roles that are open to them, they are present in far more areas of the Israeli military than ever before.

But as Shani Boianjiu’s example shows, women’s advances are also potentially problematic for religious men. And this could signal the beginning of a troubling trend for women in the army. 


Reprinted with permission from The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). 

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