Gender

A guide to being a woman in 21st century Israel

By Hila Beyovits-Hoffman

David Cameron today makes his first trip to Israel since becoming UK prime minister has backed peace talks between Israel and Palestine. To mark his visit, Israeli blogger, feminist and social activist Hila Beyovits-Hoffman writes for us about her view on the state of Israel for women today.

Mazel Tov, you’re 18! For a young Jewish Israeli this means it’s time for military service. You will be drafted to the Israeli Defense Forces or face prison, as a conscientious objector or defector. So blow out the candles and it’s off to boot camp, young lady.

Like all Israeli children, you were taught since preschool that military service is the essence of your civic duty as an Israeli patriot. State schools taught you about the Goyim constantly killing Jews; about how the Holocaust wiped out six million Jews; about how Israel was established as a sanctuary for the persecuted Jews.

Israeli education is meticulously designed to imprint students with an overwhelming sense of persecution and righteous indignation at the historical wrongdoings toward Jews. We grow up with a constant, unrelenting fear for our lives, paranoia on a national scale. The army must be held sacred and protected at all costs because, we are constantly told, it is the only thing standing between us and total annihilation.

Thus indoctrinated, you join the army proudly.

And it’s a necessary step on your career path! Most of Israel’s political leaders were high-ranking officers, going directly from the IDF to the Knesset; employers often seek specific military training, reflected on a resume. On a personal and national level, this service is important for your future.

Alas… When you do join the army, you quickly discover that it’s a man’s game. Positions and career paths are only open to men. Men can become high-ranking officers. Men will call the shots; you will serve their coffee.

Moreover, women in the army are constantly exposed to sexual harassment and abuse. Countless cases of abuse or rape by senior officers are met with a cover up, or a wrist slap for perpetrators.

Conventional sexual harassment exists alongside religious discrimination. Formerly more secular, the IDF increasingly adheres to rabbinical strictures. According to Halacha, the Jewish religious code of law, women should be neither seen nor heard. Want to train troops? Military rabbis say you may not give out orders to men, because it is “immodest”. Want to be a combat soldier, alongside the men? The rabbis shudder and say any touching is forbidden. Want to sing to the soldiers in special events or holidays, as military entertainment? “Gewalt!” say the rabbis, “a woman must only sing for her husband, or it’s prostitution!”

Both religious and secular male-dominated institutions work to deny you an equal place in Israeli society. Military service won’t buy you equality.

*                *                *

But let’s look at the other side of the Shekel. What if you resist the draft?

You’re an 18 year old Jewish woman in 21st century Israel, which has become an apartheid state. You believe that the occupation of the Gaza strip and the West Bank is illegal and immoral. You see the corruption that this occupation causes, the violence, the ruthlessness, the hopelessness. You believe your country can and should become a morally superior place, an example of coexistence and peace, a true “light unto the nations”.

Rather than cooperating with the “Israel Offensive Forces” you avoid being drafted, working instead with a leftist, anarchist movement. You protest the unjust occupation and the brutality of the soldiers towards the civilian Palestinian population at demonstrations.

But then, male peers ask you not to wear T-shirts or shorts, “because the locals consider it immodest; it’s against their religion”. You swallow your pride and defer to the greater goal, dress “modestly” and show up at the demonstration, where you are sexually harassed by the locals, by your fellow leftist protesters, and of course, by Israeli soldiers, who already consider you to be a traitor. Thus, the pecking order is preserved, same as in the army. So much for deferring for the greater good.

*                *                *

From its very inception, the feminist movement has suffered from CDD – Constant Deferral Disorder. Women have constantly been asked to put their dignity, their rights, their very lives aside, defer them for “the greater cause”. Feminism in Israel is no different. Many people would say that “surely, the problem of women’s rights in Israel pales in comparison to the occupation!”

I contend that women’s issues should never take the back seat. I contend that allowing 51% of the population to always be seen as lesser human beings is precisely what leads to the philosophy and mindset that allows, even encourages, one nation to believe it has a right to control and oppress another.

And yes, Palestinian woman have it even worse, because they’re doubly oppressed, but notice what this system does even to the so-called privileged Jewish woman. Treating one group of people as inferior and denying its members equal rights, while fighting for the equal rights of the members of another group, such behavior does not stand the test of reason, nor of ethics.

While we allow this injustice to keep happening in the name of “the greater good”, Israel will never be able to function as a democracy. One form of oppression does not and cannot justify another. If women are never equal, we can have no significant influence on foreign policy, the occupation, the peace process, or social issues. We will always lag several steps behind, and with us will lag the dreams and hopes for a better future for all people living in Israel and Palestine.

Hila Beyovits-Hoffman is an Israeli blogger, feminist and social activist, writing on social and political issues, the LGBT community and gender issues. Follow her on Twitter: @vandersister

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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4 thoughts on “A guide to being a woman in 21st century Israel

  1. Gonzofist

    Military training and participation are inextricably linked to women’s rights. I wish women in Afghanistan were able to serve in the military. To be armed, trained and ready if fanatics unleash a holocaust on women again.

    Reply
  2. Daniel

    I’m not sure I understand.
    Do you want Israeli women to not serve in the IDF?
    Are there no women pilots and women in combat in the IDF?
    Are you saying that as long as we don’t have peace, women with a leftist view should not join the IDF?

    I’m a feminist and an activist for peace. I sereved as an officer in the IDF and am very proud of it. Did you serve coffee for 2 years in the army? come on…

    Reply
  3. Hannah

    This article is horrible and terribly inaccurate. Women in Israel are treated better than in other country in the Middle East. Look at the treatment of women in your country, raped, payed less, slut shamed constantly before you put down a country like Israel.

    Reply
  4. Lil Z

    Interesting piece about the complex intersections between sexism, racism and politics in Israel.

    You may be interested in Andrea Dworkin’s book ‘Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel and Women’s Liberation’, which explored in quite profound ways the inextricable links between racism and sexism, and the fact that both rely on an ideology of domination, sadism and ‘othering’.

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/377164.Scapegoat

    Reply

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