It was a telling insight into Israeli culture that during the elections last month the only group which appeared to be a viable alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its coalition was Blue & White, an alliance led by three former army generals, including most prominently Benny Gantz, the army’s Chief of Staff during the 2014 Gaza War.
Militarism is deeply integrated into Israeli politics and society. Almost every day, we wake to headlines of threats to national security, rockets from Gaza, drones from Syria, tunnels from Lebanon. War memorials feature prominently in towns and national parks. Young armed soldiers waiting at bus stops or sitting in cafes are a common sight.
But what is the cost of militarism? What impact does it have on society as a whole, on the youth who serve in the military, and those who don’t?
In March, I met with Heidi and Adi, Development Officers from New Profile, a feminist organisation working for the de-militarisation of Israeli society. They provide counselling and advice for those seeking exemption from military service and organise and educate teachers and social workers throughout Israel who are concerned about the effects of militarism on the young people they work with.
In a militaristic society the military is revered, its leaders held in the highest regard, and in turn the military’s norms and values pervade and dominate the civil society, in areas such as education, entertainment, urban space, social services, family life, etc.
The Jewish society in Israel perceives military action as normal, and wars as unavoidable. It is a society in which integration in society is conditioned on military service, which is framed as both a burden and a social duty one mustn’t avoid.
Like many of the other partners of the Church of Scotland, New Profile is concerned about the shrinking of public space for critical discourse.
They therefore try to create a space in which both youth and those who work with them can ask questions and freely express their concerns about the military occupation of the West Bank, the moral dilemmas they may face as they carry out their military service, the personal impact it might have on them and their families. The treatment of women, attitudes towards the Arab community, the widening social and economic gap, the education system … all of these they believe are affected by a militarised culture.
As we sat in a cafe in south Tel Aviv, Adi and Heidi explained to me that the work of New Profile is unique amongst the anti-occupation groups in Israel. There are no other organisations working to legitimise choosing a non-military path. Groups like Breaking the Silence are comprised of people who have served in the army and who expose the reality of Israeli military control in the Palestinian Territories. New Profile, on the other hand, seeks to tackle directly the the problem of militarism as the root cause of the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the lack of peaceful solutions.
It does so through two main avenues: its counselling programme for young people seeking exemption from military service and through organising and educating teachers and social workers.
Thirty volunteers work in their counselling programme, some of whom served in the army, some of whom left the army early, and some of whom were exempted themselves from service. About a thousand teenagers a year seek out advice from the counselling network, concerned about military service because of their gender identity or sexuality, concerns about sexual harassment, needing to work to provide financial support for their families, physical or mental illness, or reasons of conscience. They are then matched with a volunteer counsellor with similar experience who will guide them through the process.
The army exempts Palestinians, Haredim, religious women and individuals who can prove they are not fit to serve because of health conditions, including mental health. Each year there are also draft refusers who choose to make a statement against the occupation and face prison as a result. (Those who wish to be exempt for reasons of conscience must apply to a special committee, and it is extremely difficult to get exemption on this basis.)
One of the volunteers in the counselling network who assists youth seeking exemption from the military wrote the following about her experience:
It is legal to request an exemption, and there are no formal consequences if one is granted. However, those who do not serve in the military do not have access to the societal privileges and connections associated with army service.
New Profile also organises monthly meetings of their teachers’ forum in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. This is a opportunity for teachers who are worried about the effects of militarism to voice those concerns, find more information, and support one another.
As they explain in their 2018 Annual Report (attached below), New Profile is one of the organisations whose work has been affected by the passing of the 2018 ‘Breaking the Silence Law’. They write that this law ‘enables the Education Minister to prevent lectures in schools by organisations that are in contradiction with “The 12 principles of the Education system”. This broad definition provides the Minister with means to block many organisations that are critical of the government’s policies. For example, one of the 12 principles, “Loyalty to the State”, can be widely interpreted. Another principle is to promote “meaningful military service”. Since the law was passed, we have felt its impact when reaching out to schools and offering our workshops and guides. We have received many negative responses from schools and the main reason that was given to us was their fear of angry responses from parents and of sanctions from the Education Ministry’.
In response to these imposed limitations, New Profile works in coalition with others to address this and continue to reach those who need their support. They have also been a crucial part of the process of establishing the Feminist Fundraiser’s Forum to explore joint fundraising opportunities with like-minded organisations seeking social change in their communities and a just and peaceful future for Israel.
New Profile’s feminist roots are reflected in how it is organised. Recognising that both patriarchy and militarism are hierarchical, it limits contracts for paid staff to two years to prevent unequal power relations, and all of the seven part-time paid staff are of equal status and receive equal pay. As they note in their Annual Report, gender issues are always on the table at discussions, and at meetings and workshops, they encourage participants to consider how ‘the military reinforces and perpetuates stereotypical roles of men and women and promotes gender inequality within military ranks and in society at large’.
They ask critical questions, not only of the Israeli government and social norms, but of themselves and those with whom they work:
- How do our actions impact another?
- What role are we playing in the oppression of another community?
- What biases or injustices are we perpetuating because of our complicity in a society which is based upon hierarchy, patriarchy, and inequality?
- What does it mean to be a citizen and why is militarism the only way to be ‘equal’ citizens in Israel?
- What do we actually mean when we talk about security?
- What does a peaceful society look like and how best can we achieve it?
I came away from our conversation not only inspired by both the courage and humility of New Profile but also with my own perspectives and understandings challenged. It was a reminder of how diminished public discourse is where there is not space in which the voices of minority groups can be heard, and in light of the election results, how lamentable it is that there is little to no youth, LGBT, female and minority representation in the current government.
But it gives me hope that there are those in Israeli society who believe that a peaceable future is possible, who work together with other organisations who share their priorities, and who support young people who choose to use their lives to make that future a reality. Their determination and courage deserve recognition from the international churches and community.
You can read more about the work of New Profile in their 2018 Annual Report, and you can support them through their website: