Feminist Leadership in Israel in Resisting Militarism and Occupation


The following article was published in German translation in the Swiss feminist journal Olympe as: 


Rela Mazali, "Widerstand gegen Militarismus und Besetzung: Feministinnen in Israel praktizieren Demokratie," translated by Shelley Berlowitz, Olympe: Feministische Arbeitshefte zur Politik, Heft 25/26, 2007.



In November 2000, about one month after the outbreak of the second Intifada—the second Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the territories it seized in 1967, the feminist peace movement in Israel organized a women's protest. Five hundred of us, Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel, stood hand in hand along the Wadi Ara road where just a three weeks earlier Palestinian citizens of Israel had been shot and killed by the Israeli police. We had totally disregarded the warnings of security officials that the area was volatile and dangerous. Not one Hebrew or English newspaper reported the demonstration – it didn’t sit well with one of the central themes in Israeli media coverage of the outbreak of the Intifada. The entire Israeli left, the media was claiming, was disappointed, disheartened and disoriented by the Palestinian rejection what called (following official Israeli versions) the "generous offer" that Prime Minister Barak had made towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Over the next 5-6 years, the media consistently continued to ignore the feminist anti-occupation movement when thousands of us marched through the streets of Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv at least twice a year to protest the occupation, the wholesale violation of human rights by Israel and successive Israeli governments' rejection of any non-militarized policies. It again, for the most part, ignored the feminist-led opposition to Israel's war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, when thousands demonstrated week after week throughout the fighting.

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In a militarized society such as Israel, the relative privilege of a specific group is maintained by continuously constructing and “othering” out-groups. The "others" are produced either as dangerous (the enemy) or as inferior (women-and-children) to the privileged group. Through the same process, the privileged group is produced as either a powerful adversary (to the enemy) or a strong and vitally necessary protector (of women-and-children). Accordingly, in militarized Israeli society, women are the disempowered other in need of protection. Thus, their views and protests on security matters are not, as a rule, taken seriously. 

The processes of “othering” both women and the enemy involve the repeated reproduction of fear, keeping intact a sense of existential peril, while normalizing war as a solution and making soldierhood seem admirable, even desirable. These cultural and political processes, placing an enemy on the one hand and a vulnerable, feminized home on the other, are based on habits of thought which organize the world in dichotomies: kill-or-die; all-or-nothing; win-or-lose, etc. According to feminist scholar Carol Cohn, gender is the underlying model of such conceptual habits because the dichotomized gender opposition is so widely perceived as “natural” and "given". Therefore, the social maintenance of rigid and hierarchical gender roles, reinforcing this perception, becomes central to the maintenance of militarization.

In addition, both in Israel and in many other places, masculinity is perceived as enmeshed with soldierhood. While women are drafted in Israel, their second-class military service in fact demonstrates and consolidates their second class citizenship. Most women fulfill service jobs in the military and are severely underemployed. More important, the practices of sexual harassment that are very widespread in the army operate forcefully to silence and marginalize women both during and after their military service. 

As Israeli women are, for the most part, considered unimportant in the military, Israeli conscription law states women's, but not men's, right to exemption on grounds of conscience. Due to this and other reasons women are exempted from the military much more easily than men in Israel. Nevertheless, obtaining recognition as a conscientious objector can prove a difficult and humiliating process. This is not usually recognized by the refusal movement in Israel, though, which tends to view women’s refusal as unimportant due to their perceived unimportance as soldiers. In other words, despite its dissenting position the movement of refusal-to-serve-in-the-military in Israel adheres, to a considerable extent, to the perceptions and values of the sharply gendered, militarized society around it.

This is the context within which feminist women have taken the lead in resisting Israeli militarization, resisting the occupation, protesting Israeli violence during the years of the second Intifada, opposing Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, its repeated attacks against the Gaza Strip and its lethal 2006 siege against the Palestinian Authority. The feminist peace movement has consistently accounted for the largest group expressing radical dissent over these years. Aside from the socio-political context described above, there seem to me to be several reasons behind the persistence that accounts, at least partly, for the leadership role.

First, the feminist anti-occupation movement has for years dealt directly with real individual women and men “on the other side”. It has had a distinct “people-to-people” or “women-to-women” orientation, rather than formulating itself exclusively in terms of so-called “macro” processes,

of “birds-eye” overviews and analyses. There is a strong component in this movement of eye-level vision, of practices relating to individual people and individual lives, of following and learning from the details of how these are affected by the conflict on either side. As Carol Cohn demonstrated with regard to nuclear scientists, this type of human-scale vision is routinely erased from decision-makers' discussions of what they call security. It is a mode of vision more easily adopted by the marginalized who are not situated “above” mundane life and people. In fact, it turns marginalization into an asset, into a source of knowledge which is not readily accessible to the powerful who tend to approach people as populations and generalizations.

This is why the Intifada was no surprise to feminist anti-occupation activists. We were completely aware of the dimensions and details 

of violence and oppression experienced by Palestinians in their daily lives. We were not misled by the peace process narrative after Oslo. We knew that peace was not being felt or made on the ground. Therefore, feminist peace activists who were protesting and working to end the violence and oppression before the Intifada simply went on doing what we’d been doing anyway. The Intifada, however, did actually galvanize many activists in Israel into increased action and commitment, also motivating re-groupings and an emphasis on coalition work. This, then, became one of the sources of feminist leadership.

In some cases, though by no means all, the human-sized viewpoints of feminist groups and feminists' attention to integral connections between the personal and political levels, facilitate true mutual support among activists. This can be crucial to the ability of political groups to endure and to the ability of individual activists to weather harassment and outright attacks as well as weariness, emotional burn-out and despair.

In addition, for better or for worse, I believe that feminist activists are used to working in the margins with very little or no public visibility. While I wish to avoid stereotypes, it is nevertheless the reality that women in Israel routinely do most of the painstaking slow work of caretaking and hands-on educating. This type of work develops practices of indefinite, stubborn investment even when no visible results are achieved. Consequently, feminist activists and groups were able to continue initiating and generating public education events and protests even when no media coverage resulted from them and even in face of escalating violence.

Moreover, visibility is always relative. Feminist anti-militarist and anti-occupation activists both in Israel and elsewhere have developed ways of gauging the value of our work independently of its reflection in the media and separately from its large-scale “macro” effects in the political system. The criteria applied and the value they indicate have to do, again, with human-scale results and processes of gradual change.

The feminist anti-militarist organization with which I have been active for the past 8 years is called New Profile (www.newprofile.org). Below, I will offer a few examples of these gauging mechanisms from our own experience. - Almost a decade ago, we began critiquing the militarization of society in Israel, in fact disseminating the term "militarization" for the first time in Israel. Therefore, when several journalists began using this and related terms a few years later, despite never having reported on New Profile, we knew we had contributed to a meaningful shift in discourse.

- In 2004, three high school students who were not directly connected with New Profile, chained themselves to the gates of their school to protest a new military curriculum and denounce the militarization of education, using exactly that phrase. New Profile activists valued these young people's use of terminology that the group had disseminated through various channels, including an international conference on the topic in 2001.

- Growing numbers of young people turn to New Profile for information and support in their struggle to refuse the draft and the movement responds through a country-wide counseling network of people who offer them assistance. In providing these services, New Profile activists are aware of facilitating gradual social and political change.

- Some of these young people later go on to become active with New Profile, forming and operating discussion groups, weekend seminars and an alternative summer community for yet younger people with whom they examine militarization, social issues, feminism, ecological questions and conscription. This process, now ongoing steadily for 8 years, makes it obvious that—together with these youngsters—New Profile has created a unique public space bringing adults and youth together.

- It was within the context of New Profile that young women refusers first gained sufficient confidence to clearly formulate and voice their unique standpoint, one which had never been articulated before. New Profile members recognize this as a highly significant development, a learning experience for all of us.

- The umbrella group, the Coalition of Women for Peace, has initiated a large-scale public education project dedicated to unpacking the term "security" in its broadest sense and to examining the extent to which militarization provides or undermines it. We recognize this as the adoption of a social analysis originally proposed by New Profile to be further expanded on by the Coaliton.

Feminist leadership in the Israeli anti-militarist and anti-occupation movement consists, then, to a large extent, of ongoing presence and persistence. It invests great efforts in truly realizing the metaphor of “grassroots” work, effecting gradual shifts in language and attitudes even when visibility or credit are denied or slow to come. It is leadership from the margins. When large-scale national developments and power-play not only contradict but seem to totally by-pass what we believe in, voice and are working for, we nevertheless go on doing what we do, meanwhile attempting as best we can to provide each other with nurturing support. The clarity of vision and purpose necessary for that make this painstaking work a form of leadership.