Women in the Israeli Army
and LARRY PORTIS
The refusnik movement is one of the few encouraging developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Given the overwhelming support of Western governments to a Jewish fundamentalist state, and especially the billions of dollars in annual financial aid given by the United States government and used in the Zionist project for the ethnic cleansing of occupied Palestine, the growing refusal of Israelis to participate in this monstrosity needs to be better known. Yes, there are anti-Zionist Israelis, those who understand that only by adapting to their Middle-East environment can the conditions for future peace and harmony with « Arabs » be established.
Enlightened Israelis, and there are significant numbers of them, know that the most valuable component of their vaunted « western » heritage is secular, democratic institutions which give equal rights to all citizens. Such institutions and conditions have never existed in Israel. Instead, the ethnic discrimination, racism and religious bigotry that infuse Israeli political institutions and civil society have been perpetuated by the maintenance of permanent war. It is a situation that is highly useful in pursuance of US strategic and economic objectives, and necessary for the continued domination of certain Israeli elites. In spite of official propaganda about "security", the protection of Israeli Jews is not high on the list of governmental priorities.
Two fictional films by women opposed to these conditions should be seen. Close to Home(2005, 90mn.) directed by Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager, and The Substitute, directed by Talya Lavie (a short, 19 minutes in length which recently received the Jury’s Prize for best short film at the 28th. Mediterranean Film Festival in Montpellier, France), reveal what Israeli women experience during their compulsory military service. These three directors provide a unique glimpse behind the scenes of the hierarchical and masculine world of the Israeli army. Far from the heroism that propagandists associate with it, military service in Israel and, of course, in the occupied territories of Palestine, is especially conducive to repression and violence on every personal and political level.
Military service begins at age 18 in Israel. Men are required to serve three years, women two years.
Close to Home begins at a military checkpoint of the type travelers experience upon arriving at the airport in Tel Aviv. We see immediately how the systematic body searches on Palestinians amounts to a form of collective punishment orchestrated, or at least executed by very young, generally newly drafted, female soldiers. This is something that everyone who has gone to Israel/Palestine with the objective of observing conditions, and who does not have the right "profile" has experienced.
Arbitrary and abusive searches dehumanize everyone involved, the Palestinians of course, but also the soldiers who must remain impassive, insensitive to the fear, exasperation, hate and contempt generated by their need to "just carry out orders".
Close to Home opens with a rebellion at a border-crossing checkpoint, an exceptional event in which a female soldier refuses the cruelty that her duties impose on innocent people. She even tells the people waiting to be searched to go right through the turnstiles. The subject is thereby announced: what are the conditions in which these young women work, and what happens when they refuse them? The violence and tension the incident engenders sets the tone for the rest of the film.
We then follow two other Israeli soldiers, Smadar and Mirit, as they patrol in West Jerusalem looking for suspicious characters and potential terrorists. The personalities and characters of the two young women are very different, and what we see during the course of the film is how they are transformed by the work they do.
Smadar, the most indifferent to military discipline at the beginning, is progressively transformed into a more repressive person. Mirit, more conformist and respectful of authority at the beginning of the film, comes to call into question the system of domination in which they participate.
To make such a film in Israel is in itself a difficult and courageous act. We were able to interview Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager after an advance showing of their film.
CHRISTIANE PASSEVANT: What led you to make a film on this subject ?
Vidi Bilu: We live in Israel, in a society that has been militarized for almost sixty years. No one had yet done a film on women’s compulsory military service and it seems to me that people are generally unaware reality of it until it overtakes them. Both of us have done our military service. It was in talking about it that we decided to make the film.
Dalia Hager: Almost every woman in Israel does her military service between the ages of 18 and 20.
CP: My impression is that young Israel women generally do their military services in offices. But your protagonists, Smadar and Mirit, are out in the population looking for potential terrorists, stopping people on the street, at checkpoints, and in buses.
Vidi Bilu: That’s right. For 70% of women, military service means office work. But with the feminist movement women are more likely to work in situations where they are confronted with the same violence that men encounter. It is difficult, in fact, to demand equal work for women in the Israeli army from a feminist perspective
CP: The officer in charge of the female patrol groups is extremely severe and masculine in her behavior. Is this a reflection of the military hierarchy?
Dalia Hager: This is very typical. Women who train new soldiers behave like men. However, we attempted to reveal her more humain side, as when she is surprised kissing her boy friend. In her work, she simply does what the army expects of her.
CP: She also plays this role in the presence of her commanding officer during an inspection, and her tone is subservient in relation to him.
Vidi Bilu: We wanted to show this as well. Her behavior is structured by male expectations. When the officer arrives–on her territory–she appears more understanding. As soon as he leaves she becomes more authoritarian. She imitates him.
Larry Portis: The film is essentially about violence and submission to authority?
Dalia Hager: It is certainly about violence, which is everywhere in the streets. But it is also about the repressed violence that explodes to the surface.
Vidi Bilu: Fundamentally, the film is about violence and submission, although this phenomenon is not limited to Israeli society.
CP: Do you think that compulsory military service reinforces violence throughout the whole society and, more specifically, between men and women?
Dalia Hager: Yes. And as far as gender differences are concerned certain women have struggled for equality in the army. Personally I’m opposed, because the army is by its nature a masculine institution. To demand equally in a repressive system seems somehow contrary to feminist aspirations.
Vidi Bilu: In contemporary Israeli society women are strong and it is difficult to say that men control women, even if this isn’t true for the whole society. Women are more and more conscious and that has nothing to do with military service.
CP: Is sexual equality protected by law?
Vidi Bilu: More than before, but there is much left to do. Men do pose a problem.
CP: Does the occupation (of Palestinian territories) engender social tensions in Israel in relation to which militarization is both a cause and effect?
Dalia Hager: That’s right. Everything seems normal although violence can erupt at any time. The occupation increases the tension. You can feel it just walking in the streets.
CP: The leading characters in the film, Smadar and Mirit, have opposed personalities that are transformed little by little.
Vidi Bilu: We wanted to show how personalities are dissolved in a rigid system. Smadar, the rebel, first refuses to play the game and, in the end, come to actually embody the system. In fact, the film is not about real rebels, like the woman at the beginning of the film who enters into an open revolt and refuses to search Palestinian women at the checkpoint. For us, she is a real hero and thus exceptional. What we aimed at doing was to make a film about the ordinary people caught in this system.
CP: The violence reaches a climax at the end of the film when a man refused to show his identity papers and Smadar becomes very aggressive. Passers by are drawn into the conflict and the man is almost lynched, in spite of Smadar’s attempts to calm the crowd. The film ends with a fade out as we hear the sounds of this out-of-control incident.
Vidi Bilu: Smadar had become the system, and the situation was out of control. She vented on this man all the frustration she had accumulated. Seeing a blacked out screen while the sounds of violence are audible was intended to dramatize a feeling of helplessness.
CHRISTIANE PASSEVANT and Larry Portis have published La main de fer en Palestine: histoire et actualité de la lutte dans les territoires occupées (1992). Christiane is now preparing a book on Dissident Women in the Middle East. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org