Monday, February 3, 2014

Women in the army: a necessary measure or a dangerous ideology?

I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that Israel is the only country in the world which practices a collective draft for women. Women can serve, by choice, in many countries, but only in Israel do 16-year-old highschool girls get a letter from the army that sets the cogs in motion for their tests and paperwork and subsequent entry into the ranks of the army at the age of 18. 

Granted, only a few of the girls end up in combat units. Nobody can be forced into a combat unit, not even men. After learning to use a gun and crawl in the mud, most of the women who serve are shipped off to peaceful, often boring, and sometimes even borderline useless jobs. Thus they spend (or should I say squander?) two years. All for the sake of equality. 

(Side note: a girl who wants to wriggle out of the army can do it easily enough, if she knows the right way. Girls who come from religious homes are safe. But everyone get the letter from the army. The default is that everyone must serve. If you didn't serve, you had better have an adequate explanation for it later, when applying for a job, or in social situations.). 

Many foreigners assume that since (a) Israeli women are required to go to the army, and (b) the IDF is an efficient, modern, well-adapted army, then it is a matter of course that (a) causes (b). I have actually read in several foreign forums an outcry that goes, "the Israeli army is one of the best in the world, and it drafts women - this means we, too, should have more women in the army!" - this logic is faulty. The few women who push themselves into combat units, the air forces, etc, are celebrated by the liberal-minded, but the overall quality of the unit is not improved by them. Where physical power still plays an advantage, standards are inevitably lowered to enable women to enter. And the girls who are basically sent out of the way to boring office jobs "because Israel's army is the people's army and everyone must serve their country" create a hugely inflated, ineffective, costly bureaucratic mechanism. 

I have been saying this for years to anyone who would listen, and so I rejoiced to read the words of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, published in his weekly column last weekend (abridged translation from Hebrew is, as usual, mine): "According to high-ranking military officials, it would be possible to give up around 30% of soldiers who hold office jobs, without their absence being felt, but in order to enforce the "people's army" model, superfluous jobs are invented especially for them.

The problem really is a serious one; it is a pity none of the experts dealing with it proposed a simple solution to a great part of it - doing away with the collective draft for women. As strange as it may sound, Israel is the only country in the world where women serve in the army by default. It appears the only reason Israeli women must serve in the army is the firm belief in equality of sexes. [emphasis mine]

The present situation costs the government a lot of money, both because many of the women in the army are in a position of hidden unemployment, and because these two years of service cause a delay in education, work and marriage. Of course, there are women who hold important positions in the army, but they can do paid service, without all the women serving along with them. 

My note: I believe (and so, I conclude from his other articles, does Rabbi Melamed) that the army isn't really a place for women. However, I am far from imposing my beliefs on anyone. I only hope (and that is much to hope for, I know) that the leaders of our country do the sensible thing and stop summoning 18-year-old girls to a mostly useless service meant to promote a twisted ideology, which was set up by the same people who believed the ideal way for children to be raised is in communal "children's homes" in kibbutzim.

Rabbi Melamed also fleetingly mentions the lack of modest behavior in the army, and the sexual harrassment that is so prevalent there. I won't even get started on this because I will then keep writing all night, and I can't do that!

One last thing: there is a myth often dragged out to justify drafting Israeli women into the army. It is said we must do this because our country's safety is often in such a precarious position. This is a very emotional argument, and very effective in silencing objections to women serving in the army, but it doesn't stand the test of reason. Many girls who serve in the army spend two years goofing off. In the case of emergency, it's not those girls who will be handed guns, but reserve soldiers. Women in the Israeli army are entirely dispensable and the collective draft law is nothing but a relic of the communist ideology this country's founders brought into the Middle East. 


sara said...

Anna, you know how rumor is so I don't know if what I'm about to relate has any truth to it, but when I was a teenager (more than 20 years ago), there was a 15-year-old Israeli girl who had just moved to our neighborhood in New York who was said to have come in order avoid the draft in Israel. I remember not knowing if it was true, worrying for her safety, and wondering what would happen to her if she and her family went back to Israel at a later time.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Sara, something like this is quite possible. While women's lives are generally not endangered in the army, unless they push themselves into combat unit, many wish to avoid the doctrine behind the collective draft for women, or simply don't wand to waste their daughters' time. So, many families who can send their teenage daughters abroad, take advantage of this opportunity. A girl begins her sorting process at around 16, and is drafted at 18. Someone who has been abroad until the age of 19, the army usually won't bother with them unless they volunteer. I knew a family who made aliyah from Russia. The mother and daughter came two years after the father and son, so that they could stay abroad until the daughter was 20 and wouldn't be in danger of being drafted into the army.

I personally remember that, when we were told there are no private showers in boot camp and all the girls shower together (it was an army-prep lecture in high school, and they tried to make it souns like it's cool!), I shivered and decided I would do ANYTHING to avoid that. I think it's inhuman to force a girl into such a boot camp. Why must an 18-year-old girl be put through this? For the sake of communist ideology?!!!

Bonnie said...

Fascinating! I didn't know about this! I always learn something from your blog Anna! :-)

Lady Anne said...

You mentioned communal showers. In the US, physical education is required in high school, and after classes all of the students must take showers before they get back into their regular clothing. The girls' locker room had a long U-shaped shower, with shower heads pointing in all directions. We had to go down one side of the U and up the other, grab a towel on the way out the door, and then dry off and get dressed. It wasn't fun, but we didn't want to go back to class all sweaty and smelly, and there was no way out of it. I understand that Orthodox have much stricter ideas about modesty than some other groups, but is this arrangement I described really that distressing?

Also, there was an article in the newspapers the other day about the Ultra-Orthodox up in arms over the fact that the government wants them to be drafted, too. I'm obviously missing something here. If the country was founded on absolute equality, why are they not subject to the draft, just like everybody else, and how can a group of grown men justify sending women into the Army (even if, as you explained, they are not in fighting positions) while they stay at home?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Lady Anne, perhaps it's all a matter of what one is used to, but for me, the idea of sharing a shower with other girls was very distressing. I wasn't Orthodox back then, but I still couldn't wrap my mind around it. Also, even back then, I knew most soldier girls have unfulfilling, boring positions, and I didn't understand why Israel needs to draft them all.

The Ultra-Orthodox you mean are definitely against women being sent into the army, either. Their women are not in question, only their men. You see, there is a status quo that says full-time yeshiva students don't have to go to the army. Just like some Olympic-level sportsmen, famous actors, singers, etc, get their service delayed or even altogether cancelled. The idea of this status quo was to ensure the true geniuses of Torah study will be able to learn without interruptions. The problem is, among all the Orthodox men who don't serve, not terribly many are true geniuses - and not all study full time as they claim, either. Many use the "Torah study" option only as a way to wriggle out of the army.

I personally still believe the army is better off without most of these men, at least financially, because many of them are married with children, and thus would require, by law, higher salaries than unmarried childless soldiers.

Anyway, it is a complex issue that is really driving a wedge between different sectors of the Israeli society.

Lady Anne said...

Thanks for the information. I do understand that a full explanation of Ultra-Orthodox versus "plain" Orthodox would require a book, not a blog, but you have cleared up a couple of things for me. I enjoy reading your blog so very much, and have learned a tremendous amount. Thanks! (And yes, I'm sure there aren't that many geniuses out there - or here, either.)

Ganeidaz Knot said...

Like Sara, I too had a friend in college who informed me she was unable to return to Israel because she would be drafted.

Frankly I think equality is a myth. Physically & mentally men differ from women & those differences mean women should be debarred from certain things. As should men from other things. There will always be exceptions but exceptions should not decide the norm.