Conscripted in 1917

My own life story is in many ways the embodiment of the militarization process endemic of Zionist Israeli society since its first generation in Palestine. 1917, the year my father was born, saw the Balfour Declaration – by which Britain acknowledged the right of the Jewish people to its own homeland in Palestine/Israel.

My paternal great grandparents had been among the first Zionist immigrants to flee the pogroms in Russia and seek a different future.

 

My father like others of his generation were groomed to embody the “new Jew” – bound to the land of their Biblical ancestors, to physical labor, strength and self-sufficiency, austerity, daring, admiring European Romantic culture, enamored of nature and German and British poetry, captivated by Jabotinsky’s Revisionist ideals and nationalist vision, and deeply contemptuous of Arab culture and presence.

 

By the time of my own birth, in 1946, the Holocaust was recent history, some children in my own class at school had been born to concentration camp survivors upon their liberation by the Allies, and were personally carrying the burden of their parents’ recent nightmares. We were forever busy with the subject of the Holocaust and its implications, even as 7-8 year olds. History was very simple. Even at school things were made plain for all to see: We learned that our people had known nothing but suffering and persecutions, even annihilation, ever since it was exiled from its homeland 2000 years ago. That now this all comes to an end – we are here to stay, from now on Jews are safe, and in order for us to be safe we not only HAVE an army – WE ARE AN ARMY. And not a pompous, beastly, primitive unjust army like the fascist Axis forces. No sir. Even without the tremendous logistics and infrastructure of the American GIs, the tradition of the French forces or the bravery of the British pilots, ours is a better, a nobler, a purer, a more moral  - hell, the MOST moral army in the world. 

I don’t remember any of us kids asking where all the Arabs went.

I don’t remember being informed of their existence to begin with, except as some vague mention of a few primitive villages here and there – past vassals of the antiquated feudal Ottoman system. We learned that they evacuated their own homes when the Arab neighbor states urged them to do so, in order to come back as victors and loot everything soon, when the war would be over, back in 1948…

 

Any talk of refugees that may have penetrated our mental stronghold through radio or press from the outer world was considered anti-semitic propaganda, and we knew what to do with THAT.

As for my own experience as a girl child - at the age of 3 I proudly stood up at some festive gathering and announced “No, I’m not a Jew. I’m an Israeli!!”, to everyone’s delight and amusement, and implicit pride and joy.

For my 9th birthday, my father gave me an air gun, but all I felt was all-consuming shame, I didn’t really deserve it because my arms weren’t strong enough to bend the barrel in order to load it. This was the perfect introduction to my basic training in the army that would take place 9 years later…

 

My high school years were spent abroad – we went there so my father could complete his belated university studies as an engineer.

The moment I turned 18, I was put on board a plane, alone, and shipped off to report to the recruitment authorities in time as required by law. 

I could have gotten a postponement until my family was ready to return to Israel six months later, but such a possibility would never have entered our minds. The fear of friends suspecting my parents of staying away and avoiding my duty was reason enough to ship me off alone to another world.

I do not recall entertaining the least hint of a question mark, I was totally conditioned to blind obedience by then. Basic training turned out to be an ongoing nightmare that blocked me off from my self and turned me into an unfamiliar shadow – to be experienced simply as a symptom of personal complexes, social dysfunction, a defective Israeli.

This was more or less like not having the right biceps to bend the barrel of an air rifle at the age of 9.

The army had me go through two months of training that had absolutely nothing to do with my eventual army secretarial job:

It taught me that girls made defective soldiers, had us go through exercises of rolling in the sand, shooting, roughing it, all in the most ridiculous, cumbersome fatigues, in humiliating camp conditions, carbolic stench, abusive commanders and between barbed wire fences. I don’t recall wondering what this pathetic miniature inferno had to do with Israel’s proud military self sufficiency, or with its legendary gender equality culminating in universal conscription. I don’t recall wondering anything, in fact.

I was far too busy being ashamed and defective.

 

In the subsequent secretarial job I had to report to roll call at 7 a.m., stand at attention while the sergeant major would hackle,

tease, curse, and verbally abuse anyone wearing a skirt. This was his morning exercise, and woe to the girl who would dare protest on any level.

Above my desk at the office, my boss, a young horny lieutenant had put up a car-sale calendar with the proverbial pinup girls splayed in various positions. He then spent hours hurling improvised arrows (miniature missiles) at the right spots, while I sat there, my head level with his belt about 80 cm away, drawing up car maintenance lists 8-10 hours a day.

 

Any personal or social values I may have picked up in my childhood and youth were obviously irrelevant.  Except one: total obedience to male, martial authority – anytime, anywhere.

This had nothing to do with battlefields for survival. It had everything to do with the gradual inner evolution of some “brave new world”. 

In order to avoid going crazy, I eventually went to officers’ training and became a girl officer – in charge of sorting out difficulties that girl soldiers encounter in their work with their male bosses…

I was thus stationed in the north of the country, in Nazareth actually, and several other outposts I was supposed to visit weekly (mainly by hitchhiking that was accepted mode of transport for girl soldiers, no one lifting an eyebrow at the risks that meant).

Of the many absurd and painful anecdotes of that period,

a particular one makes me cringe to this very day in spite of the nearly 40 years that have passed since: some sadistic officer had grounded the girls who operated the phone exchange on the base, so they couldn’t have their once in two weeks Sabbath home leave. 

The reason was some dirt particles he had fished out of cracks in the floor of their dorms with the tip of his screwdriver.

They came to me, shattered, in tears, crying for help. I appealed to my senior officer, or rather, ambushed him hours later, coming out of the senior staff meeting of the Northern Command (second in command of which was, by the way, Ariel Sharon – then a pot-bellied, cocky lieutenant-general). He heard me out, his eyes wondering up and down my body, then reached out his hand, stroked me on the cheek, winked, said: “you look so good, such a pity you take your job so seriously…” and off he went.

I came away lightly, one could say nothing serious happened. 

But in hindsight – the mental erosion is very clear. 

My own military service didn’t end with my discharge, by the way.

For another 11 years I belonged to a reserve brigade assigned the defense of the Jordan Valley, and was called up for emergency duty for long weeks in the 1967 War, and four long months in the 1973 War, knowing full well that my presence there was absolutely pointless and dictated ONLY by my superiors’ chauvinist need to have some attractive AND nice female officer around for the troops to look at, and by my own indoctrinated discipline to be obedient against my own good sense (which by then was non-existent).

 

Sexual harassment was such an obvious social norm, that again – any qualms or depressions I’d experienced I shrugged away as my own private incompetence/defectiveness/unsuitability to life.

 

Many years later I would hear a brilliant feminist sociologist define the entire armed forces as a mechanism of sexual harassment, and discovered that I share memories with countless other women both of my own time and of subsequent generations. NP has been this kind of watershed-discovery place for many of us. 

 

Short summary:

I learned in very late retrospect that

    our army needs girl soldiers as a sort of warped mirror

to strengthen the image of the male warrior,

to weaken our own self-image,

to familiarize us with the army for the sake of our grooming soldiers later on in life, be a part of this popular army that is everybody’s…

 

A male friend listens to me with an amused, obliging face, and raises an eyebrow – what are such vignettes compared either to soldiers’ plight, or on the other hand, to the horrifying harassment and persecution suffered by the army’s real victims, Palestinians in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel at the hands of the various arms of authority, etc. I agree. And then I think again and sense how those faraway times I speak of, before the occupation, before globalized prosperity for some and dire poverty for others, before the age of immigrant workers, before the outer trappings of today’s militarization – contained the roots of Israel’s deeply militarized mindset today. 

We didn’t need Hollywood Rambo films and TV series like OZ and Americanized pornography and commercialism to legitimize the idolization of brute male force. The seeds lie in the fear our grandfathers shared and had so successfully passed on generation after generation, dressed up in mythical solidarity,

hero-worship, so common to mankind for so many centuries.

So what’s new? Nothing so far. Does New Profile have a chance at denting this armor? At suggesting a new profile to Israel’s mentality? Perhaps in view of the individuals who ARE daring to stand up to the Jewish collective, and saying for the first time –

I refuse. I refuse to remain silent even if it seems I’m talking to myself and to another few convinced women and a handful of “not so manly” men. I refuse to participate in the chorus that is used to grieve for our own victims and ignoring others’ loss and devastation. I refuse to repeat unquestioningly the hierarchy of identities. I refuse to tolerate the banter of the intellectual cynics so common among us. 

I am proud to remember that the slogan WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES was first seen in Wadi Ara – on a banner in the hands of New Profile members at the women’s protest vigil against the Israeli government’s crimes against the local Arab communities at the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. 

In Hebrew there is no neuter form for enemy. One either has “oyvim” – the masculine form, or “OYVOT”, the feminine form.

MESARVOT LIHYOT OYVOT literally means  “(we-fem.) refuse to be enemies (fem. Plural)”. At that demonstration we were sharing this statement with several Palestinian women with whom we were working. 3 very bloody years have elapsed. We still refuse.