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Is the IDF the world's most liberal institution?

If you read the international press and watch the images of female and gay soldiers, it can sometimes seem that way. Yet an institution cannot be separated from its main function.

New IDF recruits arrive at basic training. The army's current missions carry no honor or pride, for men and women alike (photo: IDF spokesperson / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Our company’s staff sergeant at basic training was a short bald man, who used to terrorize us in our first days at camp with endless “repeated training” – a punishment for bad behavior that came in the form of push ups, jumps and running up hills with all kind of gear – bags, machine guns – once we even had to carry our beds. He also used to refer to every female that passed near the camp simply as a “whore.” As the training progressed, we were taught obscene songs about women which we were to sing everytime we saw a female soldier. As in any infantry unit, there were only two women in our company: One in charge of “social issues” – interviewing soldiers about family problems and presented it before the staff – and another in charge of morale. In the songs we learned, the latter was referred to as “the mattress.”

We were also instructed not to allow any “foreigner” to cross the company’s yard located between our tents. There were repeated stories of things done to female soldiers who wandered into camps of “rival” units. Some of them were so horrible, that even in general numbness of basic training I remember my shock at hearing them. I guess most of these were the sort of myths and legends you hear in the army all the time – some ridiculously heroic, others incredibly ugly – but still, the existence of the stories themselves, and the way in which they were repeated, said a lot about the way our commanders nurtured our sense of manhood and group spirit. During my entire service, the only place which didn’t allow this attitude towards women was the officer academy, where they had us sing classic Zionist poems. There was much resentment over this issue.

I can’t remember whether I later allowed the sergeants under my direct command to teach the offensive songs to the soldiers at basic training. Most of the soldiers under me were religious, and those tended to avoid the explicit obscenities. They had other issues with women. During shooting range drills, I had to ask to replace my female instructors because the soldiers didn’t let them touch them when they corrected their position. From what I read in the papers regarding religious units, things have only gotten worse since.

This is why I was so surprised to read this piece by the Guardian’s military correspondent, Nick Hopkins, regarding women’s service in the Israeli army. Hopkins states that  “the IDF is the most progressive in the world [regarding women in service].” This sloppy article – based entirely on an interview with a single high-ranking IDF female officer – is so detached from the IDF as I remember it, that it made me wonder whether Hopkins knows anything at all about the realities of combat duty service.

Almost two decades have passed since my basic training and things must have changed, especially since most IDF units are now open to women (female soldiers are still not allowed in some units involved in direct combat duties, like several infantry units or armed corps). Still, a quote claiming that sexual harassment “is not an issue in the IDF” is simply bizarre, and a serious journalist should at least turn to one of the many women’s rights groups in Israel for comments, not to mention actual data.

Why is it that we suddenly come across so many pieces portraying the IDF as the most liberal army in the world? I believe that the sudden interest in the fate of women or gays in the Israeli army cannot be separated from the effort to normalize the decades-long military control of the Palestinian population. Some of those stunts – like the staged PR photo of “gay” soldiers holding hands, posted by the IDF Spokesperson on its Facebook page – are bordering on the absurd, and they all have very little to do with the actual army. That’s why you didn’t find the IDF gay image or an interview like the Guardian ran in the Hebrew press, despite its well-known admiration for the military. Too many Israelis have actually served in the army to treat such items seriously.

There have been considerable change in gender relations in the army over the last couple of decades, but the Israeli military is far from being a haven of gender equality. The high ratio of female soldiers and low-level officers in the IDF, cited in the Guardian piece, is a simple result of the general draft in Israel, and not evidence of progressive policies.

The general draft leads to what’s referred to as “hidden unemployment” in non-combat units (during my service I heard references many times to the fact that the IDF has the highest number of office and support soldiers for every combat soldier). Most of the people who sit at the desks of administration and support units are women. While other armies have male secretaries, it is common to walk into the office of an IDF general and be welcomed by a group a bored young girls, some of them sharing duties that a single professional could do. And even that diversity disappears as we move up the army’s ranks: The IDF has only one female major general – and it’s the first in its history.

The IDF is Israel’s largest and most important institution, and the social relations in the army tend to duplicate themselves in most aspects of civil society. This is why most feminist writers and organizations tend to view the army as an obstacle rather than a tool for empowering women (on the other hand, the national religious and to a lesser extent, Sepharadic Jews, have been able to use the army for social mobilization that was denied them elsewhere). Personally I believe that the military is perhaps the most important tool in preserving the power of the Israeli elite, and advancement of other social groups requires a de-militarization of society.

Finally, one cannot separate the nature of an organization from the missions it carries out. In recent decades, the army’s main function, both as a policy maker and an implementer of policy, has to do with Israeli control over millions of Palestinians that are deprived of most rights Israeli citizen have. It is a mission that carries no honor nor pride – for women and men alike. One cannot imagine nor understand the settlement project or the segregation of societies under Israeli sovereignty without discussing the army.

Should we embrace the (imagined) advancement of an underprivileged group, even if it comes at the expense of another group? Should we welcome the promotion of women to the role of field officers if their daily duties involve placing limits on Palestinian freedom of movement, aiding the confiscation of land to a nearby settlement or planning and carrying out night raids into Palestinian villages and homes?

Moreover, can we disconnect the empowerment of Jewish Israeli woman from the deprivation of rights from all Palestinian women? Isn’t sexual insults thrown at activists by security forces personal a gender issue? Could we celebrate Tel Aviv’s emerging gay scene while the same society is placing more and more restrictions on the freedom of Palestinians, straight or gays? Can Palestinian liberals fight for their values in their society while living under military occupation?

A discussion of liberal values that goes beyond propaganda cannot avoid those questions, and celebrations of Israeli liberalism cannot be separated from the fact that this liberalism only serves Israeli Jews.



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    1. amit

      the problem is that people confuse between “the most” to “is”. saying the IDF is the most liberal army doesn’t mean the IDF is liberal, but that compared to all other armies – who all lack on liberalism per definition – it is the most liberal one.
      the same thing is true in related to the expression “the most moral army in the world”. it doesn’t means that it is moral, but that it is the most moral army in compared to all others.

      Both arguments can be made about the IDF. in contrast to the writer claim, women DO take active role in combat unites in the IDF, particularly in combat unites stationed on the Sinai border. women snipers and patrol teams. this is revolutionary on military terms. women major-generals is a very, very rare thing to find in the world but it does exists in the IDF. In men combat unites all over the world you can find chauvinistic themes, so in that the IDF is not better nor worse. etc.

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    2. @Amit: you are right of course regarding some smaller infantry units that has female soldiers in fighting duties. I corrected that sentence.

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    3. Have you looked at Shovrim Shtika’s 2009 booklet of interviews from female combat soldiers?
      By their testimony, sexual harassment is certainly still an issue. I’m surprised that a military correspondent would claim it to be absent from any army, as chauvinist machismo seems to be a rotten but natural plank of military culture more generally.

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    4. As I read Noam’s underlying position, over a set of articles, talk of expanding the IDF draft will simply further anchor the nationalist/military character of Israeli civilian society, bloating an organization with extra bodies when downsizing is in order for moral, strategic, and economic reasons. Since a draft lottery is impossible, as it would recognize that the IDF is indeed bloated, all one can do is attack anything which bloats it further.
      I have never been a fan of the military. If I had been drafted (I just missed it by age in the US) I suspect it would have broken me. When “we” invaded Iraq, I pulled out Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” and sat by it in isolation. I think I understand something of the underlying sentiment expressed in this piece and a few prior.
      But it will get you nowhere. Israel has been in a war economy its entire existence. While many may well not have fond memories of service, an attack on the IDF soley as the IDF will go nowhere. Yes, I know how soldiers can treat the West Bank (Gaza is not treated but, as US drones, technologically delt with from afar, most of the time). But some conscripts come out of their service with changed minds on Israeli policy thereby. Since the army is not going away, what is the point of attacking it directly? Attacking a police policy alienates fewer than attacking all police as “pigs” c 1960-70’s. IDF soldiers, agents of their commander’s will, are measures of de facto policy; command and control should be responsible. I know–they are not. But attacking the general military culture, which devolves to attacking those happy to serve in the IDF, goes nowhere.
      I really don’t like militaries. They will never go away. I see no efficacy in disgust toward the common soldier (notwithstanding “breaking the silence”) as a tool of cultural change. You’ve been losing for a long time; you’re going to be losing for a long time. Yet I believe the factual cases you present will ultimately shift the battle ground of ideas. Facts, not general condemnations.
      I’m sorry if this sounds harsh or pedantic. I remember reacting too strongly to a soldier charge Haggai Matar reported some time ago of multiple rapes within the IDF (not among outsiders) during the 2nd Lebanese War (“where’s the proof?”). I still find it hard to believe, but your tone, above, makes me wonder a bit. And maybe that’s my point–vauge monstrocities are asserted, and left at that. Not true of your sites reporting, though.
      You got a long hard losing ahead of you. I guess you’ll decide how to do it best. I certainly don’t have a clue over here. So–best to you.

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    5. Aaron

      It’s interesting that religious soldiers’ obedience to halakhah is lumped in together with singing misogynist songs and calling women whores as “other issues with women.”

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    6. Philos

      @ Amit, you should probably check your facts before making a statement like that. If liberalism in the military is rated by females in mid to senior ranks then the US Army comes out ahead of every force in the world. Additionally, women serve in all combat branches of the US military apart from the Marines and special ops. The British also score better in this respect than the IDF. Both the USAF and the RAF inducted female combat pilots before the IAF did.
      As for most moral army in comparison to others? If our unit of measure are the armies of the West then the IDF again scores low. One only need to look at the evolution of the rules of engagement of ISAF in Afghanistan to see that the IDF is an army of occupation, pure and simple. It is an abuser and an enforcer of abuse. When was the last time you read about a NATO force going in to demolish an entire village and evict its residents from their ancestral lands? Please your claim is insulting to all the forces in NATO

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    7. amit

      Philos, women in the US military can be a part of ground combat units only in support roles and not in the actual combat roles. In the IDF it’s different; women are included in combat roles, specifically in reconnaissance units in the negev. Reconnaissance units are considered Special Forces in a lot of militaries in the world. Women are completely barred from reconnaissance units in the U.S military. The IDF is unique in including women in ground combat units.

      You make it seems as if NATO forces have better morals than the IDF, but they don’t. In the drone attacks and targeted killings by the forces stationed in Afghanistan there is much higher civilian-to-militant casualties ratio than in the IDF ones. More Afghan civilians have been killed in the last 11 years than Palestinians civilians were killed in the entire 45 years of Israel’s occupation – even though the mix between militants mix is much lesser in the mountains of Afghanistan than in the urban west bank and gaza.

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    8. Philos

      @ Amit, lol Karakal is special forces. Give me a f*****g break man…. They’re in the most “out of the way” place possible and you’re mistaken about women in the US army. You have female platoon commanders in full combat roles as well as in their navy and air force.
      There are around 20 million Afghans in a vast area. As such we have to make comparisons using ratios. In 11 years of warfare NATO have killed several thousand civilians out of a population of 20 million. In 2009 the IDF killed just under 1000 civilians in three weeks out of a population of just under one and a half million. Another example is Lebanon. Israel inflicted 1300 fatalities and 5000 wounded civilians in three weeks out of a population of four million. Let’s put it another way. A close friend of mine who serves in a Western military surprised me one day when he said (not verbatim), “The Israelis have a much easier operating environment. They don’t have to give a shit about the civilians. They can be as aggressive as they want. We have to try and persuade the locals we’re on their side all the f*****g time, which puts us at risk. The Israelis have it good. They’re not pretending to liberate anybody. Quite the opposite.”

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    9. amit

      Philos, saying “fu****” doesnt makes your argument any stronger. I didn’t say that Karkal are special forces, I said reconnaissance units with the same role and methods as Karakal are considered special forces in a lot of westran militaries,including the U.S military, and women are barred from them.
      While in Israeli standarts to be stationed in the negev means to be in the most low-intesety combat role, the soldiers stationed there still see more “action” than most male soldiers in most western army do. it’s a border with the former biggest enemy, from which there is inflatration of bombers, refugees, and smugglers practically every night. the importance of that border raised even higher last year, and the fact women are among those guarding it is a strong message of trust in women combat skills from the IDF.

      you want to talk in ratios then here is the most important one; the civilians-to-miliatants casulties ratio in drone attacks and targeted killings in afghanistan\pakistan by western forces, is much higher than by the IDF in gaza. it directly points on the forces moral since they have control over it, they can decide when to attack and when there are too many civilians around. the same goes for the overall civilians-to-militans casulties ratio in afghanistan, which is higher than the ratio of civilians-to-militants in the israeli-palestinian conflict and 45 years of occupation.
      if you want to make comparison particulary with the cast lead operation (an exceptional deadly one in israeli-palestinian standarts) then let’s compare it to faluja. a city half the size of gaza, where 4000 civilians and 1000 militants died when U.S forces faught for control over it.

      the fact the IDF is not trying to convince palestinians it is liberating them just means you wont see IDF soldiers handing out candies. The IDF still try to miminmize civilian casulties since 1. moral 2. they know that otherwise they will get trashed in international media like no one else is, and this will cause political problems. as well as personal problems for officers.

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    10. Philos

      @ Amit, if you think guarding the Egyptian – Israel border is more warfighting than what tens of thousands of Western soldiers experience in Afghanistan then your head is up your ***.
      Additionally, the drone attacks are under the direction of the CIA and not the military. Furthermore, Afghanistan is complicated by the fact that the militants habitually murder and main civilians. Listen buddy, if you want to believe that the only colonial army in the world that enforces ethnic discrimination is the most moral in the world, sababa. I served in the West Bank and I saw with “four eyes” what the hell goes on there. I will not swallow some hasbara garbage about the IDF being good. The IDF is a glorified ethnic militia with mercenaries from the Druze community.

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    11. Philos

      @ Amit, you what I’m sorry. You’re right. Escorting bare footed and hungry Aficans to Rhiomonim prison is a very dangerous combat role. The IDF has full confidence in the Karakal unit which must complete this vital task to prevent these very threatening people from invading Israel….

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    12. amit

      guarding a border from which there were an RPG and shooting attacks on one of the only two routs to my hometown (eilat), from which came suicide bombers, and from which every single night there are smuggles of women, drugs and refugees, is indeed a dangerous combat role. and indeed they see more “action” than most male soldiers in most western armies do. not more than those stationed in the conflict areas of afghanistan, but more than all others western soldiers, yes.

      as for your other claims: why does it matter who within the security forces runs the targeted killings? the targeted killings of israel are practically run by the shabaq, so what?
      “The IDF is a glorified ethnic militia with mercenaries from the Druze community.”
      mercenaries who are paid 300 shekels per month! they must made us some serious disscount. you moved from arguments to pure insults, so here is where the argument ends i guess.

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    13. swissmasai Is the IDF the world’s most liberal institution?

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