The Wounds of War

At a feminist conference in October, 1982, in one particular workshop, the main feeling the women had was anger about their helplessness with regard to war: they are not out there making the decisions about whether Israel gets involved with a flare-up or not. Their men get called up and they feel more helpless, seeing men having to go off to fight and not having any recourse.

During a time of crisis, the role of nurturing—that you must be available to the males who go off to battle— becomes dominant and important. When a soldier returns, it has to be to what the culture perceives as a warm home, with a warm person there to greet this person who has risked his life. No woman can really refuse to do that.

I don’t think it’s a situation of a guy walking into the house and saying: “How come there is no cake ready for me, what kind of a wife are you? — Here I am up there killing myself and you’re at home not doing anything!” I think there must be something in a woman’s psyche that feels, “What can I do—what is the little item I can contribute to alleviating the tension the country is feeling? And if it is cake, and that seems to show love to my husband, son or brother, at least let me do that.”

I can sympathize and empathize with that because last summer in Israel I saw soldiers on the road coming home for Shabbat—dragging themselves home exhausted. People wanted to do something, so we sent cars every Friday back and forth to the border so the soldiers wouldn’t have to deal with buses and hitchhiking. It wasn’t only women who were doing this. There were older men who weren’t fighting who were trying do do things to show the soldiers that they were also out there supporting them and being part of the battle.

After some articles were written on the conference about women in war, and specifically on the workshop where women expressed their helplessness, there was a reaction from other women who asked, “Why can’t you just bake your cake and be nurturing and be kind and loving?” The majority of the 40 letters published in the Jerusalem Post say, “What is wrong with these women, why are they afraid of their femininity and afraid of being women?”

Underlying this was the feeling that this nurturing was necessary to the country’s defense, and that failing to carry it out means you’re somehow disloyal.

My feeling is that nurturing is something you want to give in response to a pressing and urgent need, an emergency, such as when someone is sick. It is the same thing when the country is “sick”—during a war or crisis—and your husband, son or brother goes into the reserves or on active duty. Before he leaves and when he returns can be considered “sick time,” an emergency.

What is making women feel helpless and frustrated is having to live in a situation where the “emergency,” the “sick time” seems to go on forever, with no let-up in sight. And women feel trapped—they cannot refuse to give nurturing to those they love, but they are almost burned out. And at the same time, they have no real say in the decisions regarding war and peace.

Until recently, the male cultural role model has been one that closes out the sensitive man and encourages a strong image. You have a country that is living a continual war, even when it is not actively at battle. In order to socialize young men to be successful during their army service, you have to build on their strength.

After the war I talked with a lot of men who were soldiers in the Sinai Campaign when in their 20’s; now, in their early 50’s, they got called up and saw active service again. Between their 20’s and 50’s, they’ve had kids and their lives have changed. I have seen men who are troubled and in pain. A neighbor of mine said, “When I pick up that gun, I hate myself. I can’t conceive of going to the front again, and I know that if I get called up I have no choice.” His friend, who was sitting in the same room while we were talking, said, “Ah, you know when we get together and we’re with the group, it’s okay, it’s like part of the chevreh (group).”

When I talk to 18-year-old— because my daughter dates boys this age, just before they go into the Army—I ask them how they feel about this, and they say: “We try not to think too much about it.” Maybe it is a healthy defense.

I have heard two young men who come to the house, beautiful boys of 19, talking about the terrible things they’ve seen, and they are frightened. They say, it is the hardest thing in the world when you know you are up there protecting our country that you care about and love, and you really want to be home, going to the university and being with the people you love. They feel the dichotomy of their 19-year-old struggles, but they have to incorporate the Army, some of the Army, into their lives.

Lately the professional people in the Army—psychologists and social workers—have been more sensitive to this, and have been organizing groups at the front for soldiers, right when they come off active-duty status, to give them an opportunity to “decompress.” They are terrified and they have to be strong. At least if, when they come home, we allow them, with professional help, to be a little weak, they may be “weak” with their wives or with other loved ones.

If we begin to allow these young men the opportunity to ventilate and to talk about their ambivalence, then they can begin to relate to the women in their lives in a different way.

My ideal would be that we also get them to nurture women when they need nurturing. That is a response we have to build in people while they’re young, not only in Israel but everyplace. Both sexes need nurturing; it is not only the women’s job to provide it.

I go into the high schools to try to talk about roles. The girls are much more sophisticated than the boys. They are much more conscious; their consciousness has been raised. They don’t want to be like their mothers, active only in the kitchen. They want to have three children; they are not going to have eight or nine children like their mothers. They don’t want to go into the Army and just be clerks serving coffee to the generals. [See article on Shuli Eshel’s film on women in the Israeli Army, LILITH #8.] They want to be more creative, and they all want to work.

I ask boys and girls, if you were of a different gender, how would your life be different? The girls get into a lot of interesting things: they talk about career choices that might be different, and the freedom that they would have, coming home late at night, things like that. The boys cannot do this exercise. They absolutely freeze, there is no response—they can’t deal with it at all. They are apparently threatened.

They also cannot think of a single positive thing in a woman’s life. Every so often they say: “Well, that means I would stay home and have nothing to do.” And then the girls say, “What do you mean, nothing?” The boys don’t even say it would be wonderful to have kids.

One recent study shows that kibbutz kids at three years of age already see the differences between male and female roles. At three years old, kids usually say they want to be all sorts of things; they mix up firefighters, garbage collectors, mommies and daddies, teachers and everything else together. Here, the girls said they couldn’t decide what they wanted to be because they couldn’t see anything they wanted to be.

When I came here on aliya seven years ago and people found out I have three daughters, the typical response was, “Oh, how sad for you that you have no sons.” But last year, I got a startlingly different response when the question came up. People said to me, “You’re lucky, you won’t have to worry about your sons getting killed in the war.”

I do not think the war issue is going to go away in our immediate future. I hope that there will not be too many more active flare-ups. The war issue will continue to exist and we have to cope with its ups and downs, its cyclical outbreaks. We still have to contribute our energies to the things we care about. We are going to have to organize and we are going to have to get political.

This is excerpted from a recent talk given by Dr. Brenner, a Lecturer at the School of Social Work of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and a feminist therapist in private practice.