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Coming of Age

I have always thought the Jewish coming of age ritual for a girl was a Bat Mitzvah, the grasp of the Torah in ceremoniously manicured hands a rite of passage. Rachel Papo's photographs show me that the coming of age for Jewish women in another hemisphere is the army, the positioning of a weapon in expecting hands a passage to a nationality that overrides patriarchal assumptions of femininity.

The United States military continues to be dominated by men. Masculinity continues to be conflated with violence and weaponry with notoriously phallic connotations. Maybe because of their minority status (women make up 20 percent of the US armed forces) and maybe because of the rampant macho-ism army institutions promote, one in three female soldiers will experience sexual assault while serving in the military, compared to one in six women in the civilian world. Women in the military are a shock to the system here, but what happens in a country that has always used women in the armed forces and that has one of the strongest armies in the world?

Well, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, today women represent a third of all soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces, and can be deployed in 90 percent of all positions within the IDF. Men serve a compulsory three years in the army, and women serve shorter terms, usually around two years, depending on their roles. However, most women do not serve in combat: during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, around 1,500 women served in combat jobs, approximately 2.5 percent of female conscripts. And according to a 2008 military survey, one of seven female soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces report that they have been victims of sexual harassment or assault.

So how different is the Israeli Army and its compulsory service different from the American army, in terms of women? Not just in terms of assault, for which the numbers do seem less grim, but also in terms of what they feel their roles should be. One difference is that women must serve, so that women’s army service is not considered an anomaly. But what makes women not want to serve in combat units? The age-old idea that women’s lives should be protected by men so that they can raise children?

From my personal experience with friends and family in the Israeli army, many men, from as young as 13 or 14, plan and train for getting into elite combat units in the army. Since army service comes before college, many Israelis, mainly boys, spend their high school days planning their future in the army in the same way that Americans study for the SATs. And from what I’ve seen, combat units mean glory to boys: no one wants to be a “jobnick,” someone who sits in an office and files paperwork, to such an extent that the word “jobnick” can be used as a derogatory term. But with girls most of this does not seem to apply---many girls that I know hope to become jobnicks, knowing that they will be able to stay close to home and stay out of the trenches. The statistics show that if women want, they can and do serve in combat units, but Israeli culture still seems to be saying that women shouldn’t want to. Can joining the army really be considered a coming of age for women, when for many women it is just perceived as a duty?

Photo Source: Rachel Papo, “Hanging Out on the Weekend.” 2005.

Shira and Dina have their own blog about progressing Jewish feminism: From the Rib?



More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Feminism, International, Religion, Violence against women
More articles in WMC FBomb by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Identity, Sexualized violence, Military, Middle East and North Africa
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