Women in the Israeli Army

In the late 1960’s, a glossy, large-format book appeared on coffee tables in America and Israel. The book was called Israel: The Reality, and featured on its cover a photograph of a gorgeous Israeli woman soldier in marching position, a bandoleer of bullets across her shapely body, tanned face turned to the camera with a broad smile. Alas, except for the suntan and the smile, this image of the Israeli woman soldier is no more a reality than the image of Israelis dancing horas in the streets every day at sundown.

Shuli Eshel has replaced the image of the Israeli woman soldier fighting elbow-to-elbow with her male comrades with a more realistic and less dramatic picture. “To Be a Woman-Soldier” examines the collective experience of the woman who serve in the Israeli army—the only Western army to draft women.

Israeli women, unless married or claiming an exemption on religious grounds, give two years of service in the Israel Defense Forces, from the age of 18 or the completion of high school. (Israeli men serve three years at the same age—though, as the film points out, this is hardly the only inequality in the situation.)

The film follows the activities of Orly, a Yemenite woman from the city, and Abigail, an Ashkenazi kibbutz dweller, who are serving together. They serve in more ways than one. They answer the phone, make and serve coffee to their male contemporaries (who are sitting behind managerial desks and giving orders), deliver mail and provide nurturing to companies of soldiers in army camps. When Eshel told the IDF censor that she wanted to film women clerks in action (carrying coffee cups, taking phone calls for their male bosses), the officer said ‘”What? Them? That’s what you want to film?'”

Compared to the Coldie Hawn character in Private Benjamin, whose service in the U.S. Army makes a mentsch out of her, the women in the Israeli army see themselves as marking time, not seizing an opportunity for growth. As one woman soldier puts it, “If I don’t like it I’ll just leave and get married.”

Despite the reminders by women who have long recognized discrimination in the Israeli army, each new batch of 18-year-olds imagines that the experience promises adventure. Boarding the truck after farewells to their families and boyfriends, the blue-jean-clad women all say in the film, “I want to be anything but a clerk.” “I hope I have a chance to do something exciting, but in any case, I hope I’m not a clerk.” Since of the 709 jobs in the Israeli army only 205 are open to women, very few of the young recruits realize their dreams of glory or excitement. Clerkship awaits most of them. At what has come to be known as the “crying ceremony” after basic training, when jobs for the duration of service are assigned, most of the women soldiers weep as they realize that they are condemned to making coffee for two years.

The few bright notes in this myth-fracturing documentary come from the women who have been able, by persistence and talent, to make it in “male” fields. One woman, an instructor of male soldiers in the tank corps, talks about how good it feels to be able to do the job, but also about the conflicts she has felt about her identity as a woman in the male enclave of the tank corps. An older female officer interviewed in the film speaks proudly about fighting in the 1948 War of Independence, but she, too, admits that getting men to recognize women’s abilities, even in war, was very difficult. The fact that women are treated as “second-class citizens” (in the words of one of the highest-ranking woman officers in the Israeli army) is both a reflection of prevailing attitudes toward women in Israel and a factor in shaping them, said Eshel. Because army service is almost universal for women and men (with the exception of those who are or who claim to be religious) there is the illusion that women are equal to men. The reality, with women soldiers as caretakers and caregivers for the men, means that the army is a training ground for stereotyped, limited roles for women in civilian life as well.

“The army is the first time most of these women are on their own, and the message that they get is ‘serve men,’ says Eshel. “At the end of two years all they want to do is marry that hero, to have one of these heroes in their home.

“Boys and girls have the same aims until the army, then—the men want to be heroes and the women do the service jobs for men, taking care of that hero so he’ll be able to fight. For two years you’re taught to take care of that person—whether it’s a general or a man in the field. The army is a training ground for women’s stereotyped roles later in life.”

Because the army is the great melting-pot for Israelis of different backgrounds, and because it has been, for men at least, the stepping stone to careers and contacts in civilian life, it shapes the future of its soldiers in other ways also quite unfamiliar to North Americans. Israeli army generals go on to head some of the country’s leading institutions, and army leadership is a conduit to political power also. Needless to say, when women are systematically closed out of leadership positions in the Israeli Defence Forces— and they tire—they also have the door shut on many career options once their two years of service are completed.

After the film was shown on Israeli television in the Spring, Eshel picked up a young woman soldier hitchhiker. The soldier, obviously having no idea of the driver’s identity, began to discuss the film she’d seen the night before. “I think things may change because of that film,” she said hopefully. “We have been talking about it. At least maybe we can get coffee machines installed so people can go and get their own coffee.”

The film has given Israelis (and the Americans who saw it at recent showings in New York) a chance to see women such as Colonel Dalia Raz, head of the women’s corps, speak out on their feelings about women’s status in the army. “If women leaders can say it, then it’s OK to talk about it,” says Eshel. “The showing of the film gave the audience permission to speak out too.”

Airing of “To Be a Woman-Soldier” on Israeli’s one TV channel has triggered discussion in non-military circles also. Eshel reports that fathers of young women about to enter the army are suddenly concerned. The parents of 18-year-old women, who until the showing of the film hadn’t questioned what their daughters would be doing for two years in the army, were galvanized, wanting their children to do more with themselves than have six weeks of basic training and then work as receptionists and servers. One American man, at a New York showing of the film, commented, “My God, can you imagine, our daughter spending two years like that.”

Eshel, 36, is a fifth-generation Israeli who trained in film and television in London and has more than 70 television films to her credit. She confesses that, shortly after her own army service, she described her job proudly as “keeping up the morale of the men soldiers.”

What was the route she took from accepting her role as morale-booster to debunking the myths about women in the Israeli army? “I was in Europe at the age of 27, and I happened to buy a copy of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex at a stand in Geneva. From Geneva to London I became a feminist.”

Active in the Israeli feminist movement, Eshel decided to try to create change through media. “In a country where many women are still illiterate, one TV show can make a big difference,” she said recently in an interview in New York, where she was appearing at screenings to raise funds and promote “Woman-Soldier.”

Now Eshel is seeking support for projects that will deal with other aspects of the status of women in Israel. One film in the planning stage explores the “only-a-house-wife” theme; another will look at the role of women on the kibbutz. Neither topic has been tackled on film before; in fact, Eshel says that a film she made on battered women in Israel was rejected by Israeli television because it showed scenes of abused women crying. “They claimed it was too heavy,” says Eshel.

“To Be a Woman-Soldier” was financed largely by the New York-based foundation US-Israel Women-to-Women, which supports feminist projects in Israel (see Tsena-Rena, L1LITH #7). The film is available for rental or purchase through Jules Schatz at the American Jewish Congress.