His Army Her Army

Women in the Israeli military

Basic Training wasn’t that bad after all. Most of the time was passed in relative ease in what was officially termed “guard duty over my room.” I read books and developed quite nicely. Even today there are rainy mornings when I yearn for a commanding officer who would order me to remain in my room and guard it.

As time passed I began to understand why the army desired that we—the women soldiers of today—should feel as if we each personally carried on the torch (and the aura) of the pioneering female soldiers of the 1948 War of Independence: it was all supposed to make us feel that we were doing the “real thing.” The “real thing,” of course, being whatever the men were doing. Our Basic Training was planned as a diluted version of the male experience, providing us with knowledge irrelevant to what military service actually loomed in our futures.

Those of us with adventurous tendencies treated the entire Basic Training affair as one long summer camp which unfortunately lacked men. Others simply learned to suffer the idiocy. It is quite possible that this acceptance of idiocy is the true and ultimate goal of every Basic Training.

Toward the end of the month, we were marched to the cinema on our base to be refreshed with a fashion show and to listen to the Chief Officer of the I.D.F. Women’s Corps. Models dressed in civilian garb pranced gracefully about the stage, admonishing us to preserve our femininity. We sat before them in our hideous dress uniforms, thrilled by the artistic event which awakened our dormant femininity.

Our uniforms resembled the results of one of the Israeli government’s coalition agreements. Clearly their designers had struggled with the issue of whether their patriotism demanded the exposure of the curvaceousness of our Jewish women soldier bodies or whether their national obligation was rather to hide them from the covetous eyes of our enemies. The solution was a creative one. It entailed exposing the Jewish women soldier’s body, but doing so at its ugliest. Itchy pants which clung tightly to the most unmentionable of places, busty blouses bursting at the chest, orthopedic shoes with their geriatric laces and a cap like a rhino’s horn protruding from our heads—this was our Women’s Corps gear.

“Attention!” We became attentive. Towards the stage comes striding our supreme commandress, the Chief Officer of the I.D.F. Women’s Corp, in order to prepare us for military life. “A girl’s role,” she tells us, “is to bring the zic (“spark”—of love, of hope, of passion) and the chic to the military.” She was presenting us with the accepted view that women are meant to be an agent for the softening of men. Our good taste, our sensitivity, our tact and perhaps…well, yes, perhaps our sexuality would reduce the brutality within the system. A flower in the office, a smile at 6 A.M., an ironed shirt despite battle conditions—these were our goals of excellence. Good luck, girls. Parting from our Basic Training base, we moved on to the real army.

My first exercise in using “zic and chic” took place in an ugly office somewhere in the heart of Tel Aviv. Pacing back and forth in the outer room, I waited nervously for the interview that would determine my future assignment in the military. “What’s the commander like?” I asked the secretary in an attempt to strengthen myself with a bit of information.

“The commander?” she responded with a smile of glee. “He’s just fine. He’s a perfect idiot.”

Throughout my military service, I would encounter this attitude many times. As the proportion of women inducted into the military is low (married women are exempt from army service) and as the criteria for their recruitment differ from those applying to men, it appears that the average intelligence of a woman soldier is greater than that of a male soldier. (According to statistics published in the Israeli daily Ha’Aretz in 1989, 88% of female soldiers had completed 12 years of schooling while only 69% of male soldiers had received an equivalent education.)

To me, it seemed that the gaps in intelligence and schooling were even greater. What often resulted was the following combination: an intelligent woman soldier with a moronic male boss. The true problem begins when the commander’s virtues include a fragile ego and an inflated perception of his job. Two scenarios generally develop. In the first, the woman learns to hide her intelligence and capitalize on her abundance of I.Q. to manipulate the situation into making her life with the ruler easier. In this instance, she completes her military service successfully, having amassed a collection of amusing views as well as several unfortunate perceptions about the nature of productive behavior in the workplace, all thanks to the men.

In the second scenario, the woman soldier is unable to hide her intelligence, and one can forecast for her a depressing script infused with daily weeping. On one of our bases I met a skinny young woman who suffered chronically from high intelligence and depression. This young woman, who never for an instant let go of her volume of Thomas Mann, was adopted by the sergeant-major of the base as his secretary so that he could steadily dole out abuse to her. I have no doubt that The Magic Mountain only provoked his sadism. The man hollered and hollered, and she simply became thinner and more depressed. By the time I left the base, she carried with her a look of ascetic purity. In other words, she was not all there.

But let us return to my virgin experience with “zic and chic.” I entered the commander’s office, stood at attention and saluted. Embarrassed at being seen acting out such movements, I wore a sweater several sizes too large for me. Since it was a warm day, I had rolled up the sleeves. My commander spoke on the phone and waved at me edgily. As he hung up the phone, he conveyed his first message to me. “I could have you court martialed,” he informed me. For an instant my mind was completely blank, but suddenly I recalled the advice of the Chief Officer of the I.D.F. Women’s Corps, and I gently fluttered my eyelashes to show him just how well I knew he could court-martial me. My commander instantly softened up and explained, “Sleeves are folded on a shirt. It is forbidden to fold the sleeves of a sweater.” “I didn’t know,” I whispered in the voice of the best little girl in my kindergarten. “I could register an official complaint,” he warned me, his voice resounding with satisfaction. My eyes had never looked so innocent. They told him that although I knew he could court martial me and even have me sent to military prison, I knew he was a kind and merciful man and that he merely wanted to teach me a good lesson. “I just wanted to teach you a lesson,” he said with a kind uncle’s expression on his face. “Thank you,” I whispered as my voice cracked. “Thank you.”

I was assigned to a small military office — two officers, one male soldier and one female soldier. Humanity does not know how to recognize happiness when experiencing it. Today I realize that happiness, or at least the relative military equivalent of it, dwelled in that office. The amount of work time averaged between one and two hours daily, and we were free to do as we pleased with the rest of our day. We could wander about the city, read thick novels, drink coffee and drink more coffee. We made sure to keep all this within the bounds of good taste. At the right moment we knew how to appear incredibly diligent and even exhausted from our arduous labors.

Why could I not stick with this rare little spot of harmony? The “field” beckoned me “the true military life” was calling my name. My soul, it seems, desired a bit of real soldiering.

Several weeks ago I happened to pass by my old high school. On the sidewalk sat several twelfth-grade girls talking among themselves. My eavesdropping ears picked up one sentence. “What I really want,” said one girl, “is to be an Operations Clerk for a commando unit.” Twelve years have passed since I sat on that sidewalk. The faces have changed. The dreams and the symbols have remained exactly as they were.

Most of us wanted to be Operations Clerks in the commando units. We were not exactly sure what an Operations Clerk was, but the word “operations” sounded so good. It sounded so operational. We had been raised on a slew of romantic military heroes whose shells were hard but whose hearts were gold, and we wanted to be there, where the truly important things occur. If one was going to be a secretary or clerk, one might as well be an Operations Clerk. We wanted to contribute; we wanted to be in the company of the great contributors.

As I moved towards my goal of being an Operations Clerk for a commando unit, I did my best to appear like a poster of the 1948 woman soldier, and even more importantly, to feel like that poster. Generally, I tried very hard and at times even neared success. I wore the red cap of the paratroopers battalion and had officer’s ranks on my shoulders. I joined in the night-time marches, the war games. and every other element of the fighter’s amry. My vocabulary shrivelled to half its original size, and abstract ideas all but disappeared. But despite this, I knew a thing or two about navigation, and I could fire a semi-automatic Galil rifle. I knew how to throw a grenade. Today I am sickened by the knowledge that all of my efforts at adaptation were completely superfluous. My work day continued to average between one and two hours, but now the scenery was “hipper” (I was finally an Operations Clerk for a commando unit) and the depression even greater.

The way I had reached my army career goal was thanks to the Battalion Commander who figured that an additional woman in the area would do no one any harm. “Most of the girls here have a boyfriend who’s an officer. We’ve produced four weddings in this battalion,” he bragged to me during my acceptance interview.

During the two years which followed, three or four more women of the ten in the battalion joined that statistic. Life in the field was an assured prescription for an immature marriage. He and she on the galloping jeep, the tight locks of his curled hair, hers flying in the wind, and suddenly the ugliness of the army has turned into the kitsch scenery of a love story. What happened to these couples after the preps and scenery disappeared has yet to be researched.

“The girls are the officer’s privilege,” I was told by a woman in one of the battalions. She possessed a complete philosophy on the hierarchical rights of males to enter the women soldiers’ quarters. It was clear to her that our quarters was completely off limits to ordinary male soldiers. Officers, though, particularly those from the combat divisions, were warmly welcomed. Operations Sergeants and Tank Commanders (both non-commissioned officers) were questionable cases and demanded special okays. The truth is that, with no written law, the system worked. What pure soul could be attracted to a bedraggled and degraded enlisted man standing before her? We are, after all, not that liberated.

Thus, unknowingly, women serve as one of the reinforcements for men to advance in the military. As Tarzan moves further away from his Basic Training and adorns his shoulders with symbols of his masculine strength, so do his chances with Jane improve. A woman officer in the Air Force told me of an even more caustic system of reinforcements. Every seasonal round of newly inducted women soldiers who arrived at the flight squadron would stand in the administrative office. According to the prestige of their office, the representatives of the various units in the squadron would arrive to select secretaries. The prettiest ones were first to be chosen, and later the not-so-pretty ones. The procedure was known and accepted, and every office was aware of its place in the hierarchy. Every girl knew how she had been ranked. While “the best go to piloting” (the motto for recruitment of young men to the air force), clearly “the prettiest go to the pilots.”

When I could no longer stand my base, my job or myself, I began to hitchhike crazily. It did not matter how, where or for how long, the point was to get away. Most women soldiers who hitchhike are not stupid—something pressures us until we are driven to act stupidly. More than once I stood alone in the middle of the night by the side of a dark and lonely road, feeling frightened, and knowing that what I was doing was dangerous. Still, I did it. I have seen similar self-destructiveness in women soldiers who angrily gorge themselves as if, in their despair, they seek to lose all shape or form. It is customary to blame the military kitchens for the familiar phenomenon of women soldiers gaining weight. I wonder if the rate of depression among women in the army has ever been studied.

While I passed my days in increasing gloom, it distressed me even further to watch those most rewarded and dedicated of female soldiers: the Company Clerks. This job has been mythologized and appears in some incarnation in every unit: Hadas, who didn’t visit home for three months. Yonit, who traveled several hours to Hadera to bring soldiers a cake. Limor, who marched the entire “120” (the final compulsory hike/march made by the paratroopers) along with her company. And always, always, there is the story of the egoistic Lilach, who really only cares about her boyfriend, and for whom it’s high time to be kicked out.

The role of the Company Clerk speaks to a particularly potent female stereotype. Dressed in men’s pants and an undershirt, the Company Clerk is the “little mother” who never forgets a single birthday; she’s the company’s “little sister,” at whom any soldier from another company better not even think of looking; and, of course, she is the dedicated secretary who types the Company Commander’s reports until the wee hours of the night when the meetings have finally let out. Like any classic woman, she is a 24-hour-on-call para-psychologist. She listens, understands, encourages, calms male aggressions and, most of all, mediates between the soldier-sons and the commander- fathers. When a woman of this type is older, she starts her days baking bread and continues on with the washing of diapers, the darning of socks and the typing of the future doctor’s thesis. So much energy—all, to my mind, producing negative personal, cultural and political results.

Another classic type of woman in the army is that poor soul who is the first female to fill a job which has only been filled by men. I knew one of these women officers. Through no fault of her own, she was extremely confusing and confused. With fighter-pilot sunglasses, her hands in her belt, she rode the jeep into the field. A minute later she would do something weird—refer in a deep voice to one of the male officers as “hon,” or later, confound herself even further by leaning on some male shoulder in the office.

This nineteen-year-old young woman was the object of incredibly conflicting expectations. When “professional,” she was told she was not feminine. When “feminine” (imbued with zic and chic), she was told she was not professional. The paradigm for her job was produced by male officers to whom the sunglasses and the deep voice seemed vital. Who could have helped her? To whom could she have felt any closeness? To the secretaries in the office? To the officers in the field?

Women’s military service in Israel today creates a sexist trap which seems to leave no avenues for escape. It can be said that the position of a woman in the Israeli army today is comparable to that of a person who can perform any job in a hospital other than treat patients, or do anything in an orchestra other than play a musical instrument. The results, in terms of status, are clear.

Let me move from describing my personal experiences to actually offering some political and social solutions. Some of you may be impatiently wondering why I am unable to sublimate my feminism for the good of the national cause. With men sacrificing so much, some of you may be muttering to yourselves: why can’t women forego just a bit and fulfill the duties asked of them? To these questions, I have two responses.

First, the military truly is a male issue. Neither armies nor wars were invented by women. Women did not develop the weapons and generally were not the ones deciding when to enter the battlefield. Millions of women have been the victims of wars that the men waged among themselves throughout history. Just as some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are exempt from military service, as they do not see themselves sharing the interests which it represents, so should women have a similar option. The State, according to Neturei Karta (the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist political party) is an invention of the Zionists. Therefore, let them eat the fruits of their labor. The military and the wars, I feel like saying at times, are male inventions. Let the men eat the fruits of their labor. And anyway, why am I so willing for my representation in the military to be greater than my part in the government which is responsible for this military?

I hold by the romantic notion which claims that if women controlled things, we would quickly be freed of arms. The only problem is that the very quality of women which could bring an end to wars is the same one which prevents women from wanting to run things.

Secondly, let us assume that the military actually needs the female force and that maintaining the Women’s Corps is a rational issue and not just a symbolic one. (Has anyone ever checked if it would be cheaper to exempt women from the military, use male clerks and pay them wages?) Still, even if maintaining a Women’s Corps is practical in the short term, the long-term price must be weighed.

The years of military service are generally the first years in a task-oriented framework outside of the parents’ home. What is learned during this period can be critical throughout the rest of one’s life. What women learn in the military is that “work” means men in active roles and women in support roles.

Women learn to measure themselves and their achievements in terms of the aid they provide and not in terms of their own productivity. (In the sum of things, combat is the military task.) Women learn that if they want to influence, they must be the power behind the power. To one degree or another, these ideals are internalized many years prior to military service. Still, it is difficult to comprehend why a country shrieking over loss of emigrating brain power continue to batter and break down such a viable workforce.

One of the greatest wastes taking place in the State of Israel today is the unrealized potential of its women. This waste is a consequence of a process of learning in which the military is an essential chapter. Significant experience in new roles could lead to new female behaviors. In Israel, the accepted response to such a statement is to draw our attention to the few female instructors in the Armored Corps and the female officers in the Artillery Corps. These women are a quaint poster, a pretty advertisement of the military. They are even an excellent means of fundraising from Jews in the Diaspora. But they are only a token few.

It is really time to change things, but in order to do so, we must stop viewing women’s military service as a symbol and begin to study seriously its benefits and costs.

Possibly it is preferable to exempt all women from service. Contrary to popular belief, it is likely that releasing women from military service would narrow the achievement gap between the sexes. In a culture where the progress of women in academia and in the workplace is still being delayed because of child rearing, an addition of two years could be extremely significant. Saved the two years of miserable education that they receive in the military, these women could, in turn, use this time to develop professionally to the benefit of society as a whole.

Another and more preferable possibility is a gendered division of labor during the periods of military service. This would entail the creation of a separate system for women whose activities would differ completely from those of the men, We live in a society where the range of a person’s behavior is determined to a large degree by gender. Three years of separation from the men (calm down…it’s only for the work hours) and the gaining of experience in running an independent system could aid women in acquiring new skills.

Isn’t it interesting that when there are no men to be found, women suddenly find themselves able to repair the electrical circuits? (No, I am not opposed to men fixing the electricity. When Jane is absolutely confident in her ability to do it herself, she can then ask Tarzan to do it for her. In this instance, she will also be able to state honestly that she chooses in the meantime to bake a cake, and then the word “choice” will have true meaning.)

Three years of service without having to make use of zic or chic could bring into the working world women who do not perceive themselves to be helpers and do not limit themselves to being support staff. Without the fathers, the rulers and the hunters, women will be able to re-examine the immanent qualities of femininity and the claims regarding the existence of a separate female ethos.

It is quite possible that women would create a system which is only negligibly different from the male power structure. Nonetheless the possibility that it might not be so elicits a tremendous degree of curiosity. Just as Zionism provides a test of the truth of the Jewish self-image, so would a separate labor system measure the qualities of women and their ability to develop for themselves a definition of womanhood.

Gail Hareven is an essayist, literary critic and playwright living in Tel Aviv.