A new amendment to Israel’s 1949 law on army service enables a woman to obtain an exemption simply by declaring before a religious or civil judge that she observes kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and the Sabbath. If a young woman cannot in good faith make such a declaration, but still objects to serving on religious grounds, she must apply to a deferment committee. The new formulation also permits girls who satisfy a board that they live with their Orthodox parents, even if they are not personally observant, to avoid conscription.
In the past, a woman seeking such an exemption was required to appear before a special board of examiners which interviewed her extensively in order to ascertain the extent of her religious observance.
The amendment was passed by the Knesset after midnight on Wednesday, July 19, by a vote of 54 to 45, at the conclusion of one of the longest sessions in the Israeli Parliament’s history and after months of heated debate in the Knesset, the Israeli press, and numerous other circles.
Female high school students in Israel spearheaded the campaign against the amendment. The campaign’s leaders, Rakefet Katz and Ef rat Barzilai, along with Tali Weiss and Leah Glicksman, all attend the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and are 17 years old. Three of the four have mothers who served in a branch of the Israeli armed forces. Within one week in July, the Jerusalem group was able to obtain 264 signatures on a letter of protest which they circulated among 11th and 12th grade students in four Jerusalem high schools and later addressed to Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann. In the next few weeks, they communicated their message to schools throughout the country and organized an impressive demonstration in front of the Knesset, in which students from 30 high schools participated, to advocate the defeat of the amendment.
Simultaneously, another group of 12th graders based in Ramat Gan circulated anti-amendment petitions and participated in a demonstration against it in July at Kikar Malchei Yisrael in Tel Aviv.
The four leaders of the Jerusalem high school girls’ movement felt that the law exempting religious women from army service discriminates against the great majority of young Israeli women who are prepared to serve their country despite the difficulties of military life. They maintained that those women who have not served in the army have a definite advantage, in terms of education and employment, over their counterparts who must enter the universities and job market two years later. Katz, referring to the fact that some 30 per cent of Israeli women are expected to receive exemptions under the new law said, “Army service is both a right and a duty. And it must apply to everyone, not only to 70 per cent of the girls.”
The women are convinced that the new amendment will encourage increasing numbers of Israeli women to shirk their civic responsibilities in favor of personal interests, something that would prove disastrous to both the position of women in Israel and the military strength of the nation as a whole. Said Barzilai, “The government is doing permanent damage to all the women in the community, and it is imperiling the security of the state.”
Although the leaders of the Jerusalem high school group do not necessarily view their protest as a question of women’s liberation and have refused assistance from the organized Israel Feminist Movement, the issue is nevertheless an important one for Israeli feminists. Joanne Yaron, Coordinator of the Public Relations Committee for the Tel Aviv Section of the Israel Feminist Movement, praised the work of the high school girls. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during her recent trip to New York City, Yaron declared, in connection with this issue, that Israeli women are entitled to both equal rights and equal burdens.