Women's Objection to Military Service in Israel

Israel is the only country with conscription for women. Shani Werner, a woman activist with the Shministim and with New Profile, takes a look at women's draft resistance.

Shani Werner

Israel is the only country in the world that practises conscription for women. It is thus also the only country in the world where women's draft resistance exists.

We do not know the exact extent of this movement, because many of the young women choose to undergo this procedure on their own (and therefore we do not know of them). Additionally, the army refrains from making such data known to the public.

Unlike men who declare their refusal to enlist and are sent to a military prison, women's objection to serve on grounds of conscience is officially recognised by the state. Such women are entitled to exemption, provided they convince a military commission popularly known as 'the conscience committee' that their objection is indeed sincere.

The right to receive a release on grounds of conscience is one of the most well kept secrets of the Israeli army. Most of the conscription candidates are not aware of this right to refuse. The IDF does not readily disseminate information on how to realise this right. A negligible mention of this subject -- if any -- appears among the preparatory information sent to candidates for conscription. Women who inquire about this at conscription centers are often told "there is no such thing".

The process required of the women who do see the 'conscientious committee', is not simple. The 'conscience committee' treats young women objectors arbitrarily and inconsistently. In some cases, their interview is short and trivial, in others it is pointedly humiliating and seriously intimidating. Seventeen-year-old girls have to face a committee which is usually comprised entirely of much older men, by themselves, without legal council or moral support. Until recently, the 'conscience committee' rejected most of the women after their first application, and only exempted (most of) them after their second try - when they contested the decision. Many women, however, were not aware that they could appeal.

The New Profile Movement helps women COs offering a package of detailed information on this subject, composed by conscientious objector Moran Cohen and attorney Yossi Wolfson, and the movement's network of counselors who provide explanations and supportive, personal assistance. At present, more and more young women are becoming aware of this option, and most women who apply to the military commission are indeed exempted.

Although the Israeli army exempts women objectors relatively easily, in comparison to its treatment of male objectors, refusal as such is not an easy step to take. It requires every woman to confront herself, the way she was raised, and an environment that often resents her act and cannot understand it. Furthermore, the fact that women are favored over men regarding the right to refuse, results directly from women's inferior status in the army and in Israeli society at large.

Women are exempt since they are unimportant, as it were not 'the real thing' -- a combat soldier. Accordingly, their refusal -- a personal step that is brave and not at all easy -- is 'negligible', not reported by the media, invisible to the public eye.

However, the voice of the femaleobjectors is beginning to be heard today more then ever. In the past, some women would marry at 18 in order to avoid military service (married women are exempted from military service) while others chose to declare themselves religious (observant women are also exempt from service). A few years back, most young women didn't even know of their right to be released for reasons of conscience, and were unaware of the groups that could assist them in their course of action. Later, young women refused, but their refusal did not count and was not 'counted', not even by the refusal movements. In 2001, when the Seniors' letter, written by both female and male objectors, was published, female objectors were counted for the first time in Israel.

Today our voice is beginning to be heard. The IDF and the Israeli media still silences and marginalises the phenomenon, but more and more young women are choosing to refuse for reasons of conscience, and receive support and assistance. The Israeli refusal movements must keep raising the voices of the female objectors as a tool for enlarging the number of objectors, and as a way of fighting the combination of chauvinism and militarism that dominates Israeli society, a society which underrates the importance of women's objection in the same way it underrates women's military service.

( Based on an article by Rela Mazali and Shani Werner)