Masculinity and conscientious objection

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Sergeiy Sandler

When Peace News asked me to write this essay, I found myself in a strange position. Here I am, a conscientious objector to military service, and a feminist, asked to write about the connection between conscientious objection and gender identity from my particular personal perspective, and not knowing where to begin. After all, strange as it may seem, I had never thought of this connection in this respect before.

I would like to begin by explaining why I never thought of my conscientious objection in gender terms. Some of the reasons have to do with the role and form of military service in Israel, while others are more personal, and have to do with the contingencies of my own biography. This is also the right opportunity to state that my reflections here are in many places personal, and I have no idea to what extent, if at all, they are true of other male conscientious objectors in Israel or elsewhere.

Equality in eligibility

To begin with, military service in Israel is not in itself a male prerogative. Within the majority secular Jewish population of Israel, both men and women are conscripted. On the other hand, women have —until recently—been banned from combat units. This situation has recently changed somewhat (there is now even an amendment to Israel's “Security Service Law” stating that men and women alike are eligible for service in any unit within the army). Still, the combat units of the Israel Defence Forces, and especially those considered crack units, are almost all male and have a very macho atmosphere.

It is thus not so much military service in itself that is considered “manly” and masculine, but specific forms of military service. It is not the question “did you serve in the army?” that is gender-laden but rather the question “what did you do in the army?” The former question is, in fact, almost never asked. The Israeli would-be consensus on military service renders such a question impolite, despite the fact that the majority of Israel's population would answer it in the positive, because it is still considered by many to be illegitimate not to serve in the army at all. The latter question, on the other hand, is almost as common in Israel as “how do you do?” or “what's your name?” No cocktail party would do without it.

What did you do in the army?

To the question “what did you do in the army?” there is of course a stereotypic male and a stereotypic female answer. The stereotypic man would reply with great macho pride “I was in X”, with X being the name (or acronym) of some top-secret super-crack military unit, which “everybody” is supposed to have heard of. This would imply that this man used to be not in just any combat unit, deployed here or there, but that he was actually busy killing people. The stereotypic woman would reply in a somewhat ashamed tone of voice that in the army she was making coffee (ie served as a secretary in the office of some officer). Needless to say, the male members of those semi-legendary military units (in other words, the war criminals) are the ones who are later promoted to the senior commanding echelons of the army, up to the post of Prime Minister—which is sort of a military nomination in Israel.

A symbol of masculinity

Combatant military service is indeed the dominant symbol of masculinity in Israeli society, but it is not the only one. I grew up in an immigrant family, and not a very typical one at that. My parents were both teachers, and they brought me up to become an intellectual—not a fighter. The masculine ideal of the fighter never had any appeal to me. In fact, I could not have been a member of a combat unit even if I wanted to.

Firstly on account of medical problems. But also because, as my mother's only child, under Israeli regulations I would have needed to receive her approval for this, something she would never have given. In any case, when I decided to become a conscientious objector to military service, the issue of whether or not I was acting in a “manly” fashion never consciously arose.

Looking back at myself and trying to analyse my own behaviour at the time in terms of gender identity, I see that it was, interestingly, precisely my act of conscientious objection that was an expression of masculinity.

Unable to let go

Overt conscientious objection is a relatively rare and costly way of avoiding military service in Israel. There is an alternative—those who are insistent enough can always find their way out of the military without having to suffer any formal sanctions. This is because the Israeli army has what is termed here “a problem of excess labour force”. In short, it has more soldiers than it needs.

Under such conditions, people who do not wish to serve in the army are usually treated with lenience. The most common procedure is by means of manipulating the so-called “medical profile”. Military medical and especially psychiatric personnel are often willing to “overlook” the fact that the person they examine is trying to avoid military service of her or his own initiative.

With conscientious objectors, however, especially with the men among them, the situation is different. Since overt conscientious objection is a public political act questioning the legitimacy of the military and the seeming necessity of service in it, the army would not and does not simply let a conscientious objector go. Conscientious objectors to military service are regularly held in military prison (though usually not for very long compared to some other countries).

The right to object

As I said, this is true mostly for men. There are several reasons to this. First, a legal right to conscientious objection is recognised in Israel, but only of women. And in practice women can only realise this right before they have enlisted. After regular military service, many men serve in the reserves, while almost no women do. Thus conscientious objectors to reserve service are all men. Finally, women are required to serve in the army for a significantly shorter (though still long) period of time than men—21 months, against three years for men. And, as I noted above, they are not usually placed in units where they can experience killing, occupation and other potentially eye-opening horrors at first hand. As a result significantly fewer female soldiers develop conscientious objection while inside the army than male soldiers do. Still, those women soldiers who do develop conscientious objection to military service spend time in military prison just as male objectors do.

Exhibiting bravery

Thus, when I chose overt conscientious objection over other forms of avoiding military service, I was not simply expressing my conscientious stand. After all, nobody gave me an official certificate for being an objector. Neither is my course of action considered in some way more honourable or more legitimate by Israeli society than the others. I guess I simply chose the path on which I could exhibit the most bravery, of a particular kind.

So, for better or for worse, conscientious objection became my way of clearly adopting a masculine gender identity. Is this sort of masculinity better, or less domineering, than others? Well, it is obviously better than becoming a fighter. But—in contrast with other forms of male gender identity? I am really not in a position to tell either way.