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Women Soldiers Serving in (and Barely Surviving) the Israeli Army

by LARRY PORTIS

Tamar Yorum is a young Israeli woman who represents an important phenomenon in her country: the transfer of allegiance of the Israeli intelligentsia from support of established ideas and institutions to an alternative vision of social existence. To criticize service in the Israeli army, no matter how implicitly, is to question the very foundations of the Israeli state.

Her documentary film on women’s obligatory military service in Israel uses clandestine footage from human rights groups such as B’Tselem and, especially, filmed interviews of young Israeli women recounting their experiences as soldiers in the famed Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF — “Tsahal”.

Tsahal? Yes. As Michel Warshawsky (director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem) has exclaimed: “We have the only army in the world called by a nickname!”  This is appropriate, and clever, for military service in Israel is an intimate affair in this militarized society, where soldiers of both sexes as well as civilians walk the streets, sit in cafés and ride public transportation carrying automatic weapons as if they were handbags or umbrellas. One enters the army at age 18, two years for girls, three for boys and for them annual reserve training and service for another thirty years or more. Military service in Israel is, it is explained, a necessary civic activity of little adverse personal consequence. On the contrary, it builds character.

But what kind of character? And can the Israeli state continue indefinitely to keep its non-Jewish population in a condition of second-class citizenship, steal the land and resources (especially the water) of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and brutalize, impoverish and otherwise prepare this population for eventual expulsion? Are democratic ideals and institutions compatible with the arrogance of power, racist ideas or inclinations, or the kind of psychic denial necessary for the brutality of military occupation? Tamar Yorum’s film does not directly answer these questions, but we see that, beyond knee jerk nationalism, “Tsahal” is composed of soldiers like those of any super power bent on using its “cannon fodder” regardless of the price they must pay.

When I saw this film in late October 2008 at the Mediterranean film festival in Montpellier, France, I was sitting next to a young Palestinian woman wearing a Muslim headscarf. From the city of Nablus on the West Bank — occupied territory — but now studying in France, she has been “controlled” innumerable times by soldiers at checkpoints, often by women. She undoubtedly has little sympathy for them. Yet, like most viewers in a theatre silent except for the testimony coming from the soundtrack, she was soon weeping, and she was weeping for the Israeli girls who told their stories.

Some of the testimony is not too surprising. If, for example, there is no real equality between males and females in the IDF, to expect otherwise would be naïve. After all, this is the Middle East and, besides, who can say that sex discrimination does not exist in the US army, or the French army…? At any rate, one ex-soldier explains that it is so very important for a girl to have nice-smelling hair. This is expected. But she also explains there are other expectations to respect, such as keeping silent when fellow soldiers steal from Palestinian homes that are routinely raided. One young soldier, believing the propaganda that the Israel army is the most “moral in the world”, reported such a case of theft. She was soon led to understand her mistake. Another could have exposed a falsified report that led to the imprisonment of Palestinians who had done nothing. But she did not have the courage to do so.

Another protested that an arrested man clearly was not guilty of an alleged offense and that this would be revealed during his interrogation. She was told: “Don’t worry. He will confess.”
Those of us who were impressed by Abu Ghraib and the exploits of Lynndie England and her friends will find that such behavior is banal; it is just a question of tactics, standard operating procedure. There are many forms of torture, and each has its specific purpose.

Camaraderie, peer pressure, the sheer ignorance and the exuberance of eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds given authority over others — in the occupied territories — and expected to perform in all conditions, none of this is shocking. Military occupation of course involves the brutal treatment of the conquered population. As a former female soldier quickly discovered: “It’s the Far West. We can do what we want there.”

Occupation de-humanizes. This has been seen in Vietnam under the US boot, in Algeria “pacified” by the French, in Iraq and Afghanistan today. But if the population to be pacified is treated like sub-humans by the occupiers, it is the latter who are de-humanized.

As former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once explained, “Shit happens”. No need to be upset. But youngsters sometimes have trouble dealing with it. When, for example, someone you know is killed. One girl responded by requiring arrested men to stay in the burning sun for 13 hours without drinking, and then forcing them to do push-ups.

All this is the stuff of future memories and reminiscences for impressionable young people.

When one girl-woman asked to see the body of a dead man, she was obliged, but then ordered to clean off the blood, urine and excrement, in order to hide the signs of torture. This was not exactly to her taste. Seeing a dead body is perhaps a thrilling, first-time experience, but to come to know a corpse so intimately…

But this is not a simple litany of horrors. We can find such material everywhere. What is overwhelming in “To See If I’m Smiling” is seeing and hearing these women relate their stories. Because it is not easy to do: for them to tell, or for us to listen and watch.

Tamar Yorum worked four years to find and then film the people who not only experienced the reality of military occupation, but who had the courage to admit, in front of a camera, what they had done, either actively or passively. One advantage Yorum had was that she had similar experiences when she served in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s between the ages of 18 and 20. For example, she watched a man tortured until he collapsed into a generator, blood streaming from his face.

But watch the young woman who killed a child, who now has a child of her own. How can she live with this? As she says herself, there is no choice. It is now part of her life. It is weight attached permanently to her soul, a presence in her brain that ceaselessly announces a guilt for which she cannot, ever, find atonement.

Or watch the girl who had herself proudly photographed with a deal man’s corpse, because the man had an erection and it was fun to pose next to it.

Imagine using death for amusement. After her military service, she could not bring herself to look at the photo, before having consented to be interviewed by Tamar Yorum. And during the interview we at first don’t understand the meaning of her embarrassed, slightly hysterical laughter. Gradually, we realize that this is a sign of her psychic discomfort. We come to understand the symptoms of her neurosis. The laughter belies the fear and pain mixed with self-consciousness, when she says she will, in the end, look at the photograph of herself as a young, exuberant soldier-girl next to a corpse with an exposed erection, “to see if I’m smiling”.

Maturity is a funny thing. Becoming aware of our failings, our weaknesses, is never agreeable. It is not easy to gain objectivity about ourselves, and come to see others with the same indulgence we normally and unconsciously have for ourselves, to accept the “other” as a being as valuable as ourselves.

That fact that Tamar Yorum’s film is about women is certainly not by chance. Everyone knows that, somewhere, for reasons that are not so difficult to understand, women’s subordinate status makes them naturally more mature in terms of greater sensitively to others, in terms of “emotional intelligence”. But women are also complicit in everyday atrocities when institutional authority deems it legitimate and necessary to deny the humanity of “others”.

What we have before us in this film is a contemporary example of what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil”. Israelis, no less than people in the United States, France or Nazi Germany, tend to feel their own suffering more than that of their victims. Adolf Eichman could not admit that his actions were reprehensible. This is Arendt’s point, referring to the Nazi horror and how those who administratively acquiesced to it were led to say: “What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!” instead of saying “What horrible things I did to people!”

The most emotionally intelligent and courageous Israelis are now refusing to deny their complicity in crimes against humanity. Ari Folman’s film, “Waltzing with Bashir”, about an Israeli soldier who passively participated in the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, develops another aspect of the same theme: how the minds of good people who have participated in evil actions resist the reality through denial. For many people, if not most, the actions simply did not happen. They “put them out of their minds.”

It is such a common phenomenon. It has been a feature of all the genocides perpetrated in recent times, from that of the Native Americans, to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, to the Nazi horrors, to the “pacification” of Algeria by the French, and right up to Rwanda and Burundi and Iraq. The list is too long to mention all the examples, but in all of them the individual will to forget, and the collective effort to distort the historical record, is remarkable.

The most honest, intelligent and sensitive Israeli intellectuals — thinkers, teachers, and artists of all kinds such as writers, filmmakers, musicians and actors — increasingly say “no”. Such people are of course a small minority in Israeli society, but over time their criticisms will be of the utmost importance.

LARRY PORTIS is an historian and writer living in France who has recently published a history of fascism in the United States (Histoire du fascisme aux Etats-Unis, Paris, Editions CNT-RP, 2008). He may be reached at larry.portis@orange.fr

 

 

 

 

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