Women Objectors to Military Service in Israel

Men who refuse military service for ideological reasons frequently make headline news in Israel. Yet young women in Israel today who choose this difficult, unpopular course often find themselves virtually invisible.

The army is reticent to discuss the phenomenon—it declined a request to be interviewed for this article— and statistics are scarce, However, women comprised half of the 300 high school seniors who published a widely publicized open letter in 2001 opposing induction. Maariv newspaper reported that the army issued 114 exemptions to women in 2001 and 141 in 2002.

The State of Israel drafts both men and women into compulsory military service. However, The Defense Service Law provides that “A female person of military age who has proved… that reasons of conscience… prevent her from serving in the defense service shall be exempt from the duty of that service.”

An applicant is required to bring two witnesses to the hearing to vouch for the sincerity of the beliefs to which she testifies and has the right to appeal a negative decision of the board, popularly known as the “conscience committee.” Once exempted, she has the option, but not the duty, to perform alternative service, most often involving work in schools, hospitals, or social organizations.

The experience of appearing before the closed committee is not an easy one. And women who decide to object also face their classmates’ approbation. Danya Vaknin of Mevaseret Zion feels that “[a]t times it seems like it would have been easier to enlist. The price of resistance is high. I’ve lost most of my friends.”

Parents are often afraid of repercussions down the line upon their daughters in a society where proof of army service is a standard question on employment and university admission forms, and not having served raises eyebrows. Conscientious objector Moran Farhan reports: “I even got a threat that I would be fired from my job. Sometimes it feels like I shouldn’t talk about it, so people won’t hate me.” Noa Freudenthal was told as a conscientious objector it would be a waste of time to apply to the Hebrew University School of Medicine. She now studies medicine in Germany.

As women objectors rarely go to jail, they do not become celebrities among the left, as do the men who refuse induction. “Because of the general sexist infrastructure within the military, being a woman CO becomes publicly unimportant. These young women doing something quite difficult arc completely marginalized, “says Rela Mazali, a founder of the New Profile movement aimed at demilitarizing Israeli society.

For example, Shani Werner, a 2003 high school graduate, feels her decision made her “an outsider” among her classmates. When Werner told her mother she planned to resist because she was a feminist, her mother replied, “If you’re a feminist, go be a fighter pilot.” She reports her family would have preferred her to “do what everyone does.” Werner recalls when she signed the draft resisters’ letter “[w]e were so convinced that women’s draft resistance is identical in importance to men’s.” But a year and a half later she felt disillusioned: “The women’s draft resistance movement…no longer exists. We’re no more than a team of cheerleaders. Accompanying the boys as they go into and out of prison, formulating petitions and letters, demonstrating, visiting the prisoners…. Do I have no choice other than being someone’s ‘little woman’—if not the military hero’s, then the resister hero’s?”