The precarious position of women objectors in Israel

The status of women under the Israeli conscription law, and practice, has always been exceptional. Now, legal developments threaten to deprive women conscientious objectors in Israel of the little recognition of their right to CO that they enjoyed so far.

In 1949, the decision has been made in the Israeli parliament: the Israeli conscription law made conscription mandatory for men and women alike. To appease opposition from religious parties, it was agreed that observant Jewish women be exempted from military duty, but many among the religious Members of Parliament felt uncomfortable with such a purely sector-specific arrangement. This is the story behind Israel's peculiar form of recognition of the right to CO: conscientious objection is recognised as legal grounds for exemption from military service, but only for women.

This is also the context in which developed Israel's unique movement of women COs. In early 1954, Chava Bloch, the first known woman in Israel to make use of her right to CO, faced a State bureaucracy that literally did not know what to do with her. Fifty years later, several hundreds women are granted exemptions on grounds of conscience, in a procedure set out in official government regulations every year. But in many respects the authorities continue improvising their way through.

Women objectors are supposed to convince the members of a committee that reasons of conscience prevent them from performing military service. This committee's members, however, have no relevant qualifications and show no understanding of what conscientious objection is. Instead of listening to the applicant and asking relevant questions, they often prefer furiously attacking her for her expressed views, without letting her express herself in any length. For many years it was standard procedure in these committees to automatically reject all applicants, and then to automatically overturn the rejection upon appeal.Moreover, the Israeli law says nothing about what kinds of conscientious grounds are to be considered acceptable. The committees dealing with women's requests for exemption on grounds of conscience often understood that only pacifist COs (in their peculiar interpretation of what pacifism implies) are to be granted exemption, but there were also quite many cases where a non-pacifist woman CO, if insistent enough, managed to obtain an exemption from military service on grounds of conscience.

In parallel, recent years have seen some advances in Israeli male COs' legal and political struggle for the recognition of their right to resist conscription. While initially the Israeli military was not willing to grant any man an exemption from military service on grounds of conscience (with the possible exception of some reservists), constant legal and political pressure pushed the military, with the backing of Israel's Supreme Court, into a compromise position: recently several young male draft resisters have been granted exemption on grounds of conscience. All have managed to convince the military that they are pacifist COs, and that too by very restrictive criteria.

But this positive development for men had a cost for women. In 2003, the military instructed the women's committees (which officially are not supposed to belong to the military at all, by the way) not to exempt any woman CO who refuses to serve in the Israeli army on non-pacifist conscientious grounds. And this the committees have done, in their own nasty way (e.g. mentioning the Israeli military when giving examples to illustrate some general point in the course of the interview is usually enough to have a CO labelled 'selective' and thus rejected. Often the committee members would insist on the applicant giving examples from the practice or history of the Israeli army, so that they would have the excuse to reject the application).

This new practice was the reason for the appeal to Israel's Supreme Court, made earlier this year by CO Laura Milo. Milo refuses to serve in the Israeli army because it is an occupying force. She was rejected by the committee that examined her case, and was rejected again by an appeals committee. After spending one short term in military prison for refusing to enlist, she filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, claiming that the Israeli law provides for exemption from military service to any woman who refuses to serve in the army for reasons of conscience, and nowhere does it say that some sincere conscientious position is to be accepted while another is not.

Laura MiloOn 9 Aug. this year, Israel's Supreme Court published its decision to reject Laura Milo's appeal (following which Laura was sent to 14 more days in prison). This in itself was to be expected. The argumentation behind this decision was, however, much of a surprise to everyone involved, including the representatives of the State.

Israel's conscription law grants women an exemption from military service on “grounds of conscience or grounds of religious family lifestyle”. Traditionally it was understood by all parties involved that these are two distinct grounds for exemption, but the new interpretation of the law, laid out in the Supreme Court's ruling in the Milo case unites the two. According to the new interpretation, exemption on grounds of conscience is to be given only to women whose family or community, due to some form of religious lifestyle (presumably Jewish), would not allow women to perform military service. Notably, these grounds for exemption are not what we would normally call conscientious grounds at all. So the new court ruling basically annuls the State's legal recognition of women's right to CO.

Laura Milo's lawyers have filed a special request to the Supreme Court to reconsider this decision. Among other things, they claim that it was explicitly the aim of the legislators to provide for exemption on grounds of conscience in general, and not just on grounds of religious observance (recall the history of this provision recounted above), and that the letter of the law quite explicitly reflects this, so the Supreme Court has actually deleted an explicit provision from a law -- which it is not authorised to do. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel -- a highly respected NGO focusing on legal work -- has also requested the decision to be re-examined, as it weighs on the recognition of the right to freedom of conscience in Israel, as well as due to the negative effects it has on pacifist women COs, none of whom has even been a side to the original appeal by Laura Milo. Both claim that the new interpretation of the law was not even remotely proposed by any of the parties to the original appeal, and it would only be fair if the parties get their chance to comment upon it in a court discussion.

The State Attorney, on the other hand, claims that there is no point in reconsidering the decision, especially since, according to the State's position, Laura's appeal has to be rejected whether or not the new interpretation suggested by the court holds. This, however does not seem to be a position held unanimously by the State system. The Ministry of Defence itself appears to be reluctant to implement this new reading of the law. The fact is that women COs continue to be referred to the same committees as before, rather than to the internal military committee that reviews the cases of male COs (and there is quite a difference between the two in terms of procedures, in terms of the rights of the applicant, and of course, in terms of the final outcome). While in April this year, before the decision in Milo's case, a record number of four women COs, including Milo herself, were imprisoned at the same time, we as yet know of no woman CO imprisoned since the court ruling was given.

What will be the final decision regarding the legal right of Israeli women to conscientious objection? What awaits women COs in Israel in practice? All these questions remain unanswered at the moment. Even more than their male peers, women COs in Israel are now in a situation of great uncertainty.
Sergeiy Sandler, New Profile