As Natural as Mother's Milk - Impregnating Society With Militarism

Impregnating Society With Militarism

My story is in many ways started out as a very common one. But it turned into one that is very unique. I would like to share it with you today. Much of my story is based on the empowerment of parents as educators. And this is based on my belief that the personal is political.

My story is a common one because like many young Jews growing up in post WWII, post Korean War America, I was raised in a very Zionist oriented home. Luckily my parents were socialists too. So it was very natural for me, at the age of 17, to be sent to "experience" Israel and came to live on a Kibbutz. The kibbutz movement, as you may well know, is a small agricultural community that was originally based on the idealism of socialism, where all members contribute and share the profits equally. The movement played a significant part in the settling of the land by Jews, a fact that I successfully ignored for over 20 years.

I eventually met my partner, Gary, who also came to Israel from America, but for entirely different reasons. Today we have 6 children. In raising such a large family in a small house such as ours, things tended to be very structured and routine. But we were able to compensate greatly by encouraging our children to be free thinkers and go with their heart. Everyone was encouraged to be an individual.

Although I wanted very much to totally accept the normalcy of the Israeli Jewish lifestyle, our families often reminded me, as did friends from overseas who came to visit, just how abnormal this lifestyle was. They would question the sonic booms that blasted out of the heavens by fighter jets in practice maneuvers. They questioned the constant mobilization of tanks on our major thoroughfares during the height of daily traffic. They questioned the need for so many soldiers in uniform being everywhere. They questioned the need for these soldiers to carry automatic weapons. These weapons, the Uzi and M16 are titled as the soldier's, "personal weapon". This is true for both men and women. It allows for a false sense of ownership within the army. It is as if you are allowed to have something and it can be your personal belonging. You can talk about your gun as it your best friend. I always denied that there was anything too serious, and said things such as, "It's the way things are here. You will be safe now. Don't worry so much. They are here to protect us." I said.

Today I am much wiser. I know that not every country would calmly accept this strong military presence that fills every facet of our lives. This strong sense of militarism is everywhere. It is in our homes. It is in our school systems. It is in our cultural halls and museums. It is in our media. We breathe, eat and drink militarism. It is in our mother's milk.

I cannot talk about all the examples that I would like to on how militarism is entwined in our daily lives. But I would like to talk with you particularly about the educational system and parenthood. I would like to talk to you about the role of preparing young men and women for war. And I would especially like to talk to you about the army's secret task force, the Parents.

This may seem like a terrible thing to say about parenthood. But parents are probably the largest indoctrinated sector of Israeli public and work very hard at perpetuating the war machine whether they realize it or not. From the day our children are born we prepare them for their eventual induction into the army. We prepare them by teaching them that Israel can only survive if it has the strongest army. We teach them that the Arab nations are always our enemy and that their strongest desire is to push us into the sea. We teach them that heroism in the name of Israel is the highest aspiration. We teach them that a dead soldier is always a hero. We glorify this loss of life and intertwine it in our folksongs and literature. We turn our monuments to the fallen into active community centers for encouraging culture and sport activities. Instead of learning from these painful experiences and how to preserve life, we commemorate and exalt death. We too have been brainwashed. We have been taught how to thrive on national days, holidays and rituals of mourning.
As parents, we permit the establishment to cut off our children's adolescence at the most vulnerable age of 18, just when they are forming their individualism and their independence. We allow the establishment to whisk them away from our homes both physically and emotionally. Sadly, the army becomes their family, their home away from home. We teach our children to accept a certain type of military normalcy that produces victims that are easily influenced and swayed. We teach them that society demands that they forfeit their personal way of thought and sacrifice their individuality for the good of this national collective, the military. All this we do in the name of patriotism and the love of our country. Such are our beliefs, in such a way we were taught, and such we teach our children. We all normalize the prospect of war. We say we have no other choice. I am also a soldier. My parental influence is used to mold my children into the soldiers the state claims it so badly needs.

I would like to share a few examples of how we normalize and justify a military state as parents and as educators.
The other day I was visiting the kindergarten on my kibbutz. The children were busy with different activities, drawing pictures, painting, doing puzzles and so on. The teacher had put a tape with songs she had just received from a music teacher. There is a very nice song that is about 5 year olds leaving the kindergarten and going to first grade. It is also an alphabet song all about the Hebrew letters that the children will learn in first grade. In the middle of the song right after the chorus the original beat of the music turned into a march and the vocalist called out "Left, right, left, right" as if the children should march into first grade as obedient little soldiers. The teacher had not even noticed that this nice song about moving on in life had turned into a military march until I pointed it out to her. She did not notice this even though the song had not been written as a march originally and was considered a classic children's song. I was able to begin a discussion with her about how this song normalizes and incorporates a military march and makes it everyday child's play.

Whereas I was able to start some kind of dialog with the teacher, my next story left me with a feeling that there was no one to turn to.
A few years ago, friends invited me to a party. They had just had a baby boy. The occasion was the circumcision of the tiny infant. The proud parents had rented out a large hall. The grandfathers were handing out cigars. Drinks were abundant. A sit down dinner was served to the 250 or so people who were invited. It was a very happy occasion. For those of you who may not be familiar with the ritual, Jewish boys are circumcised at the young age of 8 days. This act is done as a reminder of the sign of inclusion in the covenant between Abraham and God. In itself the birth of a child is always a joyous event. But after the Rabbi performed the circumcision, the poor wailing baby was held up high over our heads for all to see. The maternal grandfather called out, "Mazel Tov, another soldier is born to Israel". How heartbreaking it was for me to hear him say this. Especially since a few years before this poor man had lost his son, a young soldier, in a bombing attack at a central intersection called Beit Lid. But the tragedy does not just lie in the loss of a life or in an old man's belief that every young man and woman must join the army not matter the circumstances. The tragedy lies in the way we as citizens, as adults, as parents and as so-called free thinkers, we are unconditionally accept the call of the military. It is this normalcy that produces victims that are easily influenced and swayed and in doing so generates an atmosphere of fear of the possibility of war.

As parents society trains us not to make a fuss about issues, especially if they deal with questions that are not part of the consensus. In a way we are conditioned to accept orders. We are conditioned not to make "Noise", not to make a big deal, and especially not to question. We work very hard at developing a sense of belonging. We are taught that if we question the system perhaps this will cause our children to be labeled and tagged…"The children of that crazy mother… and so on. The men for example, show their unquestioned loyalty and conditioning when they willing leave their families and go off to reserve duty every year for a month. The women do it by dutifully ironing their uniforms and by agreeing to cope with being a single parent for periods of time. I imagine to a certain extent I was much the same way until my son Yinnon shook me out of my stupor.

Almost five years ago when Yinnon told me that he was considering resisting the draft on the grounds of his belief in pacifism, I was panic stricken. This was not a popular or accepted way of thought. I was aware that he had been reading the works of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Yeshiyahu Leibovitz. I knew he was very intelligent and willing to explore ideas and thought. But at the time it was not even something I could discuss with other parents or his teachers. It was totally taboo.

In Israel conscription is mandatory for secular Jewish youth, both male and female. But the young men and women who step forward and resist the draft due to their beliefs in pacifism or because they object to governmental policy, risk incarceration.

Eventually I turned to a friend of mine who was very involved in peace politics. Although peace activism, particularly Women in Black, was something I had done, I had put involvement on the "back burner" because I was so busy with childrearing. Through my friend I began to get involved once again. The Women in Black branch that was once in my area no longer existed. So I joined another movement, the Four Mother's Movement. This movement dealt primarily with stopping the war in Lebanon. I felt a need to belong to a movement that dealt with more then the issue of Lebanon. So I joined another movement call Mothers and Women for Peace. This movement, as well as Four Mothers not longer exists today.

We took to the intersections, demonstrating with passion against governmental policy every Friday afternoon as well as often during other days of the week too. It was there that I met another woman who was part of a feminist study group. I was invited to join her and other women in the group once a month. We studied in a group about Feminism, Militarism and the effects of Militarism on society facilitated by a friend who for many years had been involved as a feminist in peace issues. The New Profile Movement would eventually emerge from this group of young and seasoned feminists.

It was through the deep study with this group that I began to realize my role as a parent to its deepest. I began to understand how important parental responsibility really is. I began to understand that it was not enough to just teach my child how manage in this world, to teach him/her how to be responsible and eventually independent, how to communicate and create dialog, or how to be compassionate. I learned that I could not take the educational environment my children were in for granted as being the best possible system to be in. I learned that I must question all the time the content and subject matter of every single aspect of my children's education. Gone were the days when only a teacher's word counted. Gone were the days where I would take my children's education for granted. I was an educator too. Not only was I an educator, I was the most influential educator in regards to my children.

I started to look more closely at the school projects and programs my children were exposed to. I will give you an example of a few of the programs where I intervened.

Many schools offer a program during the last year of high school that is sponsored by the army. It is called Gadna, which means in Hebrew Youth Battalion. This program is especially geared to give the young students a "taste" of what the army will be like when they are drafted the during the following year. For five days the young students, accompanied by their teachers, go to a special training camp very similar to boot camp that has been designed for this purpose. The children wear uniforms and sleep in army issue tents. They are commanded by female soldiers who drill them in a very an amicable way. This gives a feeling that the army is something very soft and friendly place to be. It makes it less foreboding and user friendly. Even the drills at the rifle range and the face-to-face combat are presented in such a way that they really seems like fun and not hard work. It also gives these young students a chance to get used to the fact that soon they will be leaving home. There is emphasis on bonding and strengthening friendships during this time. Teamwork is in. Individualism is out.

My son Yinnon again did the unheard of. He said, " I am a pacifist. I have no intention of being part of the war machine, therefore I cannot take part in pre-induction war games." Now in his school going to Gadna was mandatory. He tried to talk to his teacher, a former counter intelligence officer in a tank regiment, about his decision and was not successful in getting his point across. After much deliberation at home, I decided to write a letter to the teacher and the school that we support Yinnon's decision not to participate for reasons of conscience in the Gadna. I added that Yinnon did not intend to be idle during the week his class was in the Gadna program and that he had suggested assisting the librarian in the school library. I never got a response to my letter. Yinnon stayed home and went to work with his father in the avocado orchards. Yinnon's statements of refusal and our support led to a long line of emotional abuse by his teacher. Until this day if they pass each other on a path in the kibbutz, Yinnon will always say hello. He will never get a hello back.

Another intervention I am especially proud of happened when another son, David, was going into 7th grade. In early June as parents of the newest class to be entering the school in fall, we were invited to meet the teachers and get acquainted with the school curriculum. I did not attend this meeting. But my partner Gary did. He came home with a colorful booklet describing the educational syllabus for the next year. I looked through the pages. It was very impressive until I got to the page explaining the first year of a 3-year program in Geography. There was a detailed description of the 7 field trips next years 7th graders were going to take. Every single one of those trips was to a different battlefield. I called one of the geography teachers on the phone. I tried to explain my point of view and how I felt that the children would be learning more about battle heritage then geography with this program. I repeatedly explained that I felt the emphasis in any lesson should be about the positive nature of the subject. Should the children learn about the battlefields, and then they should also learn about the different options on making peace, of conflict resolution and preventing future wars. I emphasized that I was quite willing that they also learn something about the Palestinian history of the places they were to visit and what was their eventual fate. I tried to continue this dialog with this teacher during several telephone conversations. Eventually he suggested that I speak with the head of the geography unit. The head of the unit is a former high-ranking army officer who on his retirement at the age of 40 from the armed service was trained for free by the state to be an educator. I called him up. He refused to discuss the program with me and told me that at this late date there was no way that they could make any changes. We spoke in early June. I felt there was time to make many changes in the program and I told him so. Then he hung the phone up on me. You can imagine how angry I was. So I wrote a letter to the geography team and sent a copy to the principal. Here is a translated quote from that letter. "I feel that we will hopefully be entering an age of peace, coexistence and tolerance. It is important that the educational system will emphasis peace as a option and not war in all subjects and particularly in geography." In August the principal informed me that the program had been changed to learning about the water resources in Israel.

The last intervention that I would like to share with you happened in December prior to our holiday Chanukah. I will remind you that the political climate in Israel was very tense. The Intifada had started in late September. In early October 13 young Palestinian Israelis were shot dead during the outbreaks. In early December an official committee was appointed to investigate the nature of these deaths. Accused of committing these murders were the police force and the military branch of the Border Police.

I received a letter from another son's teacher. Yogev is in 4th grade. And I quote, "Chanukah is near and the school's Good Deeds Committee would like to enlighten holiday spirit of the members of the Border Police who are stationed at the blockade near Tulkarm. Fourth grade has been chosen to do this important task. Please help your child prepare respectable package. (That's another way of saying go out and buy some goodies.) Have them bring it to school on the designated date along with a letter that they wrote to one of the soldiers"

I called my son's teacher. "How can you do this?" I asked her. "Are you aware that there is a governmental committee that has been appointed to investigate what these soldiers did?" "Yes," she answered. "But they have not been found guilty yet" I continued by trying to explain to her that I would fully support sending the packages to needy people. Soldiers are not needy people. They can live very well without the chocolate we send them where as perhaps there are children who never get chocolate because they are too poor. My arguments fell on deaf ears. I then tried speaking with the vice principal and the teacher in charge of the Good Deeds Committee. It was all in vain.

In the end I did something very drastic. On the day that the soldiers were to come to the school and pick up the packages, the school had planned a little ceremony. The soldiers would give a little speech on what they do and how they protect us from those troublemaking Arabs. I chose to keep Yogev out of school that day.

We talked about how we would look together for something he could do that would be his good deed and social contribution. I didn't have to look far. During the Chanukah vacation I chaperoned the children from the kibbutz on a trip to the Gilboa foothills. I watched Yogev help a little first grade girl climb down the steep hill for over 2 hours. He carried her. He held out his hand when she climbed down large boulders. He protected her from thorns. He gave her water to drink. Yogev had picked his own good deed in the most natural way possible.

Jewish education in Israel normalizes war and military service. Children are taught to see service as a natural stage of development. They're barely aware that life can be without this rite of passage. The narratives of holidays and rituals, history curricula, field trips and school ceremonies all work to instill seeds of no other alternative to the constant state of war. Very young boys are taught to project themselves as future soldiers. Young girls learn how exciting soldiers are. They are to be admired and cared for. Parents accompany their children through these processes. In doing so their own belief in not having an alternative is reinforced through the participation of their own child's experience of social institutions. They are actually educated through their children to ignore the natural parental impulse to protect their children and yield the responsibility and the safety of their children at the age of 18.

But in spite the militarized education our youth receive, more and more young Israelis are opting to abstain, or object to military service. Out of every graduating secular high school class at least 25% of the students do not enlist claiming reasons of health and unfitness. The truth is that in fact most of them chose not to enlist. Another 8% are exempted from service as yeshiva students, students of religion. This number has been on the rise for decades. This means that at least on third of the young men and women eligible for the draft do not enlist. In addition, of those who do, another 20% obtain early discharges and do not complete their tour of duty. In other words about half of the eligible Israeli youth either abstain from service or serve much reduced terms.

New Profile sees it as a movement of draft resistance even if no one dares to call it so. It is very unorganized, carried out by individuals or very small ad hoc support groups. But the fact is that more and more young people do not buy into the story that politicians and schools are handing them. They're alienated by decision-making processes above their heads, which are predicted on the resource of their own lives. They don't believe leaders, even if they don't always know what else to believe. They don't see where the "existential threat" is and they don't think military confrontations are truly unavoidable. They watch MTV, American sitcoms and European films and think more individualist lines of self-fulfillment. They want to live their own lives. There is less emphasis on the collective and more emphasis on the individual.

A tiny but increasing number of young Israelis are choosing to voice their Conscientious Objection. These young men and women openly declare their opposition to service in the Israeli Defense Force. Conscientious Objection is illegal for men in Israel. Many young CO's go to jail for the crime of believing. This is a transgression of the Charter of Human Rights to which Israel is a signatory. Some CO's, such as my son, are pacifists. Others refuse to serve in an occupying army. Women are allowed exemptions on grounds of conscience but go through humiliating procedure to get them.
I would just like to say to say a few more words about New Profile and some of the work that we do. We have set as one of our goals in continuing to heighten public awareness on the issues of the role of the military in our society. We believe that Israel creates its own wars and perpetuates fear that motivates people into this constant state of not feeling safe or secure. It is important to mention that there are several other of our members who have intervened in their children's schools just as I have.

New Profile collects and provides information on the draft resistance movement- both on Conscientious Objectors and on abstainers from service. We operate a country-wide network offering youngsters and parents information on their rights and legal options, and act as a support group for those who have resolved to undertake this still lonely path. We conduct public campaigns for imprisoned objectors, hold demonstrations and ask supporters to write in protest. Writing prison authorities has proved especially effective in stemming the abuse of prisoners. Letters to the objectors themselves give important emotional support. The active members of New Profile include many objectors, both men and women.

Just last month we held a 3-day conference that we had initiated. We held it together with the Hebrew University schools of education, sociology and anthropology in Jerusalem and with HaKibbutzim Teacher's College in Tel Aviv. The conference was called Militarism and Education: A Critical Perspective. It was the first international conference of its kind ever held. New Profile does many things. If I was to go on, I would talk more about our position on foreign aid, and about the other issues that we are working on daily. They include making the public aware of acts of discrimination, being the forerunners in providing support for individuals who have experienced abuse within the military, whether it be sexual, physical or emotional, and holding demonstrations to protest military actions to name a few. I am sorry that we don't have more time.

My son has appealed to the High Court for the right to be exempted from military service on the grounds of his belief in Pacifism. To this date there has been one hearing but there has not been a ruling. The panel of judges handed down an injunction order requiring the Ministry of Defense to explain in detail why they did not accept Yinnon's declaration of Pacifism. We should get their written answer this week. And we should be allowed to respond. If Yinnon wins this appeal he will have set a precedent for many young Israelis who feel as he does.

I believe that young people like Yinnon and New Profile are becoming a part of the public dialog. We will be patient and persevere. I always remember the words of a good friend of mine, Shmuel, who is 82 and often goes with me to demonstrations. He urges me to be more patient. "We are like water dripping slowly on a stone, drip, drip drip. Things take time. Eventually the stone will crack."