Militarism and Education from a Feminist Perspective: the Case of Israel

Haggith Gor on right in this photoHaggith Gor & Rela Mazali  -  Both of us have been looking for years at the implications of raising children in a state that requires them by law to enlist in the army at age 18. At first we were looking at ourselves. We were two very politically aware and active women, Israeli and Jewish, conscious feminists, taking part in organizations that opposed Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and worked against Israel’s violations of human rights. For many years each of us invested a great deal of time, energy, creativity, and what money we could, to working in and with such organizations. We regularly took part in demonstrations and protest actions.

As part of these processes, each of us formed a deeply critical view of actions taken by the Israeli army, and of the ways in which the military was deployed by successive governments, irrespective of the party in power. We began asking ourselves to what degree the military has been, and is, used as an organization truly providing defense; whether it is in fact too easily usable for purposes of oppression. We delved into extensive reading about processes of militarization in other countries, including South Africa, Ireland, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, the USA, Hawai’i. Each of us read different books and articles, as we compared and shared in an excited atmosphere of urgency and discovery. We conducted an ongoing, unfolding dialogue about similarities and differences between the Israeli case and the ones described in our reading. We constantly drew detailed analogies or identified contrasts with our own personal experiences and insights, generating a growing, living body of shared knowledge. Gradually, we began to ask whether the power and status of the Israel Defense Force allowed and even actively encouraged continuing use of warfare as a political strategy. Were these, and not external circumstances beyond our control, actually perpetuating the state of war?

Over the years in which this process evolved, we were both mothers of children of similar ages, and we watched ourselves as we raised sons and daughters who were supposed to enlist at age 18, “like everyone else.” In the Jewish society of Israel, enlisting in the army – which is mandatory by law – is viewed, for the most part, as a normal, regular, inevitable and acceptable stage of development. It is perceived as a rite of passage, and is often even considered healthy in some ways. Most Jewish children growing up in Israel are not even conscious of the existence of a real, concrete option outside of enlisting. They have no tangible model of alternatives such as study or work or travel, after high school, which are standard in other cultures. As a result, the two of us repeatedly registered how difficult it was for each to translate her critical perspectives into practical steps in daily family life, how hard it was to motivate our children to ask serious, unorthodox questions about their future participation in the military body. The process moving them towards conscription seemed to us extremely powerful. Each of us in her home and in her own personal style began stating openly that she believed they had a choice, that they would be making a personal decision by enlisting, despite the existence of a law, that it was a moral choice, regarding an organization which was deployed in severe and widespread violations of human rights. Each of us introduced her children to the alternative of not enlisting and to the various ways in which she thought this could occur.

However, as we listened to them and to our families, as we watched the responses, we could gauge the limited degree to which our personal stands affected their decision making. And when two of them did enlist, despite our intervention, we were aware of how we were drawn into supporting them as soldiers, due to our feelings and commitment to them as our sons. Here too, though, we set limits and resisted to some degree, through the details of daily practices. For instance, one of us abstained from washing and ironing her son’s uniforms, leaving it to him to follow up on his decision to enlist. Another, repeatedly questioned her son about the military actions he might be required to carry out, about whether and where he drew limits to obeying orders.

Out of this emerging context, we began to ask ourselves what turns the major step of enlisting into one which is so deeply taken for granted by Jewish society in Israel; what fixes it in consciousness as inevitable and even natural. We began following the details of the actual practices that place military service at the center of our society, and act to preserve its centrality, even in families that view much of the army’s activity as decidedly immoral. It was a search for the educational structure which puts in place the backbone of persistent public consent which generates repeated wars. We began trying to trace the threads of socialization and peer pressure that are weaved through years of school, through formal and informal curricula, through school subjects as diverse as geography and literature, through popular Israeli music, through national rituals and holidays, through advertising, movies, TV, youth movements, community centers and other cultural and social institutions. We were interested in pinpointing the minute, day-to-day practices.

In her book, Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf, one of the founding mothers of feminist thinking on militarization, described wars as products of war cultures. She explained how society generates war, rather than having war forced upon it. War and militarization, she said, were results of social structures, not inescapable realities. This was very similar to the view that both of us held with regard to the superfluity and avoidability of the continuing series of wars between Israel and various enemies. We had begun to see them, or at least most of them, as results of policy; a strategy repeatedly chosen by political leaders, and prioritized over other possible modes of action. And what allowed the leaders to choose war again and again, was the existence and maintenance of a war culture, a culture whose basic, seemingly benign components we began to identify through the quasi-automatic progression of each of our children towards soldierhood.

Gradually, we began to identify the existence and maintenance of a war culture all around us. Reading, writing, scrutinizing, researching, and always discussing, we found ourselves dealing with questions that lay outside the accepted discourse. In Israel the possible outbreak of war is generally viewed as natural, normal, and unavoidable, even if undesirable. The centrality of the military, entailed by this view, is perceived as simply “the way things are.” This perception is epitomized in the expression “ein breira” – we’ve got no other choice, which also serves to teach and reiterate the belief that “that’s life,” and that “what can we do… we don’t live in Switzerland.”
But the two of us had learned to disbelieve the justifications usually offered for wars in Israel. We no longer accepted the basic assumption that the state faces a real and constant existential threat, a self-evident threat the recognition of which requires no clarification or discussion. We rejected the presupposition that security is necessarily and/or exclusively tied to military power. And we did not see that which governments and military men usually term “national security,” as a true, relevant means towards alleviating the problems of society in Israel.

For us, all of these basic tenets had turned into open questions. We had stepped at least part way out of the cultural template in which they were taken for granted. And we mused on how their almost universal acceptance as obvious facts in our society comes to be constructed; on how children’s worldviews are formed by Jewish Israeli society so as to presuppose these ideas. We asked how it was that the military, as well as military methods and thinking, had become and remained central organizing principles in this society. In other words, we began looking at the workings of a society enmeshed in a process of intense militarization.

Our reading of Israeli society stems from the feminist standpoint which we both share. Emanating from a marginalized position, outside of major decision making processes and power centers, it is a standpoint from which we directly experience, and can therefore see, the damages caused by a given social process or project. It is a standpoint enabling a view of the women and men injured or disadvantaged by such a process or project. An awareness of our own marginalization, can sensitize us to the injury and losses of others subjected to analogous processes. Respectively, it is a standpoint enabling identification of those people who benefit from the process or project in question. Theorized in much feminist work, this is a position which looks at individual people, women and men and children, who are usually invisible in and from the public sphere. From this standpoint, situated in the margins, that which is usually erased from common social generalizations can be discerned. The invisible underside of generalizations produced by the people in power, the media, the administration, academia, can come to light. While the exclusion generating this standpoint is imposed on, not actively chosen by, women, it can be turned into a resource for focusing on what is left out of conventional knowledge. So for us, the construction of a critical, feminist consciousness, led to a fuller view of reality.

Feminist researchers of militarization, such as Cynthia Enloe, Betty Reardon, Carol Cohn, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Kathy Ferguson, Phyllis Turnbull and many others, refuse the usual circumscription of the security discourse. They have created an academic discourse which lays basic tenets open to discussion, examines who is served by a belief in these tenets, who it is that gains power when they are widely held, and who is it is that is weakened. The work of such feminists examines who benefits from constant preparedness for war, which parts of society or which external parties are strengthened by this; and who loses, which parts of society are controlled and kept in subordinate positions through the practices involved in such constant preparedness. It is a way of thinking that also asks how, by whom, and to what ends, the boundaries of discourse on security are set. Feminist activists and researchers see the very process of building knowledge on relations between the military and society, as an additional sphere in which certain kinds of thinking tend to be marginalized. The major players in this sphere dismiss certain kinds of questions as “naïve,” “unrealistic,” “flighty,” and implicitly – feminine.

Feminist scholar, Carol Cohn, wrote of an American nuclear scientist who, during professional talks with his colleagues, remarked on the meaning of the numbers of dead they referred to in passing in their discussion. He told Cohn of the chilling silence that followed his remark and described how his colleagues obliterated his comment by totally ignoring it, as if it had never been made. He had clearly overstepped the conventional boundaries of the discourse, and his colleagues called him to task through total erasure of the content of his misdemeanor. He reported feeling humiliated, ludicrous and embarrassed, and summed up saying, “I felt like a woman.”

And indeed, a feminist perspective, which translates the discourse about states, populations, and forces, into terms of the individual women and men affected by these, taking stock of their concrete bodies and their personal souls, is not seen as legitimate in usual discussions of security policy. One of the ways to prevent the discourse from moving in such directions is labeling this standpoint as “weak-minded,” “whiny,” unrealistic, not “hard-headed,” emotional, not serious and also – at least implicitly – feminine. In one instance, in the late 1990’s, in Israel, the Northern Region Commander of the Israel Defense Force, publicly characterized the “Four Mothers” movement opposing continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, as “wash rags,” rather than conducting a real debate about the substance of their views. This particular move was clumsy and unsophisticated, but it reflects a broad and consistent social effort often conducted in ways that are much subtler and much more effective.

The classification of attitudes, phenomena and ways of thinking as masculine vs. feminine, while ascribing less value, less validity and less importance to the latter, is a major mechanism for staving off attempts to redefine the boundaries of discourse in many fields, and particularly discourse on army, society and security. In Cohn’s words, “Certain ideas, concerns, interests, information, feelings, and meanings are marked in national security discourse as feminine, and are devalued. They are therefore, first, very difficult to speak … And second, they are very difficult to hear, to take in and work with seriously, even if they are said.” (Carol Cohn, “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” in: Miriam Cooke & Angela Woollacott (eds.), Gendering War Talk, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1993, p. 231.)

A somewhat similar process of devaluation and discrediting is widely applied to knowledge that is presented in non-academic or non-standard forms, and/or more heavily based on personal experience than on academic publications. Much like the feminist thinker bell hooks, we work to resist such mechanisms of exclusion by practicing non-standard forms of writing and knowledge building. As part of this methodology, we purposely avoid footnotes, a form that we see as implicitly enhancing writers’ authority by intimidating and/or alienating readers, “even” academic readers, and by invoking “established precedent” as proof. We try to use quotations sparely. When we have found them especially relevant and revealing, we try to integrate their substance and spirit into the body of the text, and avoid merely alluding to them in passing as “evidence.” When we use them, we provide full references within the text. In this way we hope to invite the words of others into our own discussion in a way that is more directly accessible, less codified and mystifying, and less authoritarian. As a result, our alternative feminist concept of knowledge-building methods is manifest not only in what we are writing about, but also the form of our writing.

A militarized outlook too is manifest in forms. Among others, in forms of speaking, of writing, and also of thinking. A militaristic system leans heavily on a representation of the world in polarized terms through a series of dichotomies which are perceived as gendered. This does not have to do directly with men and women, but rather with cultural symbol systems which construct consciousness and affect people’s ways of acting in society. Belief in a reality in which gender distinctions are an important and central organizing principle, is accompanied by a division of the world into sharply delineated oppositions. In this vein, we are accustomed to oppose culture to nature, rational thinking to emotion, soul to body, intellect to intuition, abstraction to concrete and specific instances, the public to the private.

There is a long line of oppositions of this type, in all of which the first member is classified in standard discourse – whether explicitly or implicitly – as “masculine” and/or perceived as typical of men, while the second member is respectively classified as “feminine,” and/or perceived as characteristic of women. Consequently, the first member of each pair is valued more, while the second is devalued and often even perceived as dangerous. A consistently dichotomized view of the world, based on a deepset and sweeping gender divide, offers and indirect but highly efficient emotional tool for guarding and enforcing the boundaries of a given discussion or discourse. The unstated emotional baggage attached to different members of the dichotomized pairs act to block open, critical scrutiny of social processes and ideas.

The sharp divide also provides an important foundation for constructing an enemy – that which is not-I, my opposite and opposition, the negation or the absence of my humanity, which I can therefore injure without experiencing horror at such an act. A consciousness structured by the dichotomized organization of the world into sharply oppositional pairs, is efficient and possibly necessary for the activation of soldiers, and for gaining and keeping the consent of any given society to make continued war. It is an organization that feeds into the conceptual and emotional processes involved in the dehumanization of other people. It informs a habitual reading of reality in “either-or” terms (it’s either me or him, for example), in terms of “all-or-nothing,” life-or-death, kill-or-get-killed.

A sharp gender divide, a dichotomized outlook, and the exclusion of particular kinds of discussions from the realm of the legitimacy, are also underpinned by women’s physical exclusion from certain occupations, roles and in general from power centers, and more than any others, from “security” related ones. Certain ways of observing and responding can only be labeled “feminine,” marginalized and rejected, on the basis of a reality in which women as a group indeed exert a very restricted influence on public life and affairs. For generations, women have been kept out of the inner circles of ownership of classified and privileged information, of cumulative experience of combat, and of participation in combat-related research and professions. This exclusion establishes effective (even if irrelevant) grounds for the belief that women “don’t have a clue” about security matters and neither can nor should take part in meaningful decisions on such matters.

Societies in which the army, military methods and thinking patterns, are central organizing principles, need to maintain sexist divisions of labor, gendered distributions of resources and of power. In such societies, women are consistently excluded from power centers, and militarization processes represented as answers to security and defense needs, thus act as mechanisms denying women full citizenship and equal rights.

The process is cyclical. Women’s physical, practical exclusion from involvement in security related fields is needed in order to maintain a sharply gendered organization of reality, and this organization, in turn, defines and guards the boundaries of discourse and action in these fields. This cyclical process establishes the foundations of the social structure that keeps the ruling elites in place and maintains their power. Consequently, some feminist scholars view the exclusion of various groups, and women first and foremost, as a central goal – even if undeclared and not the only one – of militarization. Sarah Ruddick, for example, has written, “… war is in some sense ‘masculine’ and expresses and reinforces violence against women … militarism [is] an extended expression of the domination of women that feminists are committed to eradicating.” (Sara Ruddick, “‘Woman of Peace’: A Feminist Construction,” in: Lois Ann Lorentzen & Jennifer Turpin (eds.) The Women & War Reader, New York University Press, New York & London, p. 215.)

In Israel, the widespread expectation that sooner or later there will be (a) war, is a fundamental component of Jewish existence and consciousness, and one of the elements of both collective and individual identity. War itself is perceived as a reasonable and unavoidable solution to political problems. Preparation for war, the military character of Jewish society in Israel, the gender roles derived from these, create the infrastructure for a hierarchy which places men above women even in the absence of war. Militarization acts to preserve a structure of male domination. In a seemingly paradoxical manner, full civilian status (citizenship) is granted in militarized societies such as Israel, on the basis of “soldierhood.”

Militarism obviously preserves the control and domination of other groups as well. In the case of Israel, these include the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are excluded from equal status and equal rights in Israeli society through a variety of mechanisms, one of which is their exclusion from the military. People with disabilities, people recently emigrated to the country, lesbians and homosexuals are all kept out of junctions of influence and power, through various means one of which, again, is their exclusion from the military or their inclusion in it on limited terms (maintenance and service jobs, etc.). Jewish Israeli women, if they are not religiously orthodox, are subject to the law of mandatory conscription and serve in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) for standard periods of about 1.5 years. However, for the vast majority of them, this service means a subservient and heavily gendered role, doing jobs that are perceived and represented as supportive to the “real” and important ones of the military (secretarial work, care-taking or teaching work). Women in the Israeli military are also standardly expected to serve their commanders coffee and they are very often subject to sexual harassment by both superiors and peers. Their central roles in the army are arguably: boosting male soldiers’ morale, creating a more “normal,” homey and pleasant atmosphere by virtue of their mere presence, providing male soldiers with the (often admiring) “other” against which they measure themselves, define their masculinity and their true soldierhood. Therefore, despite women’s physical inclusion in the Israeli military, the practices played out through their actual service reinforce their subjection, and their exclusion from important roles and decision making. Women are the largest group subject to such exclusion, and are, in addition, that group whose exclusion is vital to a formation of the identity of the ruling groups.

In a society that keeps in place a militarist regime (as in other types of societies) education plays a pivotal and crucial role in maintaining the social order. When the military and warfare occupy a central position in such a social order, it is education which imbues each individual with the reservoir of standard justifications for the fact that her or his leaders repeatedly opt for military solutions to policy issues. It is education that constantly reiterates and reinforces such justifications. Education in militarized societies acts to put in place the perception of reality that accepts war as a reasonable political course, and acts to maintain the central position of the army, represented through this education as a highly important and deserving value. It is culture and education in the broad sense which entwine the transition from childhood to adulthood, and particularly to masculine adulthood, with participation in the military body.
Feminist thinkers such as Cynthia Enloe in fact describe masculine identity in western society, as an identity that is, to a large extent, conflated with the characteristics and features of a warrior. And indeed, in Israel young boys are raised to aspire to realize their masculinity through combat, and young girls are raised to see their role as admiring support of such warriors. One case in point, featured in the weekend magazine of one of Israel’s major dailies, in spring 2001, while we were working on this piece, was an interview with the wife of the current IDF Chief of Staff. The article represented her as an especially admirable model, due to her total forfeiture of any demands whatsoever upon her partner, during his years as an aspiring officer, releasing him completely from any obligation to take part in raising their children, home making, managing family affairs, caring for her during pregnancies, attending the births of their children, etc.

On the average, at preschool age boys and girls are similar in their physical strength. Nevertheless, children this age have almost unfailingly learned to see boys as stronger than girls. The gender identities acquired at a very early age link masculinity and strength, and underline that link. It is no coincidence that so many boys – and especially young ones – dress up as soldiers, policemen and superman, for the Jewish costume festival of Purim, with the warm encouragement of their families and surroundings, who also provide them with toy guns, rifles, handcuffs, clubs and swords.

The vast majority of boys’ dramatic play in Israeli kindergartens centers on combat-like situations and fierce competition. Some of the social reinforcements they receive for this include expressions such as: “Atta boy, you’re so strong, a real man.” In general, boys are taught to identify with violent figures and to domesticate the use of violence in different ways (such as sports, or video games). Girls, on the other hand, are taught, to a large extent, to accept violence. The socialization of most girls trains them to defer and/or block the development of skills related to strength, combat, physical competition, bodily power. At least in part then, the gender divide is defined in terms of how each gender is placed vis a vis violence. And the very central role that violence plays in the social distinctions between femininity and masculinity, is – itself – a means of normalizing violence, of casting it as inevitable, natural, a routine unavoidable phenomenon.

Girls’ socialization for physical hesitancy or caution, for constant fear of assault, for aversion towards their own powerfulness; their habituation to live within a circumscribed, relatively restricted space, combine to establish a foundation that is vital to keeping women out of combat and out of influential roles. For, as stated, “masculinity” in western and Israeli society is identified not only with combat and the characteristics it needs, but also with a distinct and sharp differentiation from women. This is constructed, in part, through enforcement of women’s systematic absence from various spheres (professions, games, places), which can hence be classified as “masculine.” Accordingly, education teaches girls to construct “feminine” self-images which fulfill social expectations (such as being: pretty, naive, sensitive, emotional…). Girls are taught that matters of power, defense, security are suited only to fighting men/boys; that they are areas foreign to women/girls. Paulo Freire, and other theorists of Critical Pedagogy, have described the phenomenon of the “internalization of oppression” (in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1971), – a process in which oppressed people develop a belief in the claims of the oppressors. And indeed, many women adopt the hegemonic view put forth by “society,” according to which their exclusion from socially powerful roles is natural, inevitable, suited to their “inborn” characteristics. Freire demonstrated how such “internalization of oppression” ensures that subjected people will not aspire for change, as they believe the claims ostensibly justifying their subjection and barring them from influential roles.

Freire also wrote about the “culture of silencing” (also in Pedagogy of the Oppressed xxx) produced by standard education – a culture which blots out awareness of a group’s or individual’s ongoing oppression and blocks the growth of a desire to act against it. On this view, people are educated to perceive the world through the interpretation assigned it by the groups in power, even when their particular reality differs from the one presented by the hegemony, and even when the hegemonic version serves the ruling groups at their expense, rendering their consciousness obedient and passive. The ruling culture creates an atmosphere negating whatever differs from it, and establishes its interpretation as “the way the world is,” a natural order not created by people and serving no one in particular. Such mechanisms are constantly at work in many spheres. Women in most societies are still socialized, for instance, to view marriage as the key to happiness, despite the experience of millions of women to the contrary. Western women are educated to aspire to an unattainable feminine form, and we act on both our minds and bodies in an attempt to carve them along the lines of this impossible social ideal. And women in most societies grow up believing that security is a matter for men, despite enormous evidence to the contrary, in the form of ongoing, devastating wars and conflict the world over.

Therefore, a feminist standpoint that takes issue with mainstream pre-suppositions such as those regarding security and war, is actually an acquired and very active approach. It is a way of seeing that needs to be learned, a set of sensibilities that must be developed. For the habit of seeing things the way we were told they look is one which is very hard to break. It has to be broken over and over again. This makes adopting such a view a political act, in and of itself. It is clearly one which results from the type of learning described by Critical Pedagogy theories, the kind of education that liberates people from oppression and silencing.
Critical Pedagogy theories see all education as politicized. Every educational effort teaches a particular view of reality, presented to, and accepted by, the learners as natural, taken for granted. If education teaches an acceptance of the present reality, it almost unfailingly serves the groups currently in power, while striving to prevent oppressed or underprivileged groups from taking action to change society. Conversely, a pedagogy is liberating when it teaches and allows a critical gaze, while piecing together the silenced narratives of those groups that are marginalized by society. It is a pedagogy designed to effect a change in consciousness which will then lead to action towards social change.

The hegemonic interpretation regarding military and army issues in Israel holds in place a sophisticated and very powerful culture of silencing.

It is a culture which makes it very difficult to see the mechanisms of militarization. These are totally obscured behind the claim – taken as a pre-supposition – that Israel faces an ever-present “existential threat.” Among other things, it is an interpretation imbued in Israelis through the set national narratives taught in the educational system. Prominent among these are narratives of force or power, combat and masculinity. Major Jewish holidays, for instance, serve as opportunities for telling children annual tales of heroism, accounts of cruel oppression which could only be overthrown by war, David and Goliath style stories of a tiny but determined and ingenious minority struggling for its life and rights. In these narratives, the just, persecuted and rebelling minority is invariably the Jewish people, never another nation. And vice versa – the Jewish people is invariably the oppressed and threatened minority, never the oppressor or the threat. Very swiftly, beginning with children of a very young age, this frames a discourse that justifies decisions to go to war, which is always represented as a struggle for survival. The terms of this discourse determine children’s ways of thinking from very early on, constructing their world as us vs. them (the good guys, the Jews vs. the bad guys, the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Arabs). It disallows an awareness that this representation is merely one of many possible readings of historical and religious texts, assigned from a particular position, while totally different readings and positions are also possible.

In their book, Oh Say Can You See: The Semiotics of the Military in Hawai’i, (published by University of Minnesota Press, in Minneapolis and London, in 1999), on page xvi, Kathy Ferguson and Phyllis Turnbull, “argue … for ways of thinking that illuminate the margins, contest the hegemonic stories, and enable stories more critical of established power to be told.” Later (on pages 2-3) they explain: “the facts never speak for themselves; meaning does not dwell in objects but accrues through the narrative strategies by which the facts are recruited and made available for comprehension and contestation.” So understanding facts involves assigning meanings, explaining, interpreting, incorporating these facts into stories. And Turnbull and Ferguson, characterizing their task as feminist researchers (on page xvi), “aim to tell a genealogy of some ‘facts,’ asking how and toward what end they are produced. … to listen attentively to the military’s representations of itself, and to others’ representations of the military. … to locate the particular representational elements that both conceal and reveal the military’s presence and power.”

Questions of precisely this kind were posed by the participants in the international conference on: Education and Militarism, initiated by the Israeli, feminist, anti-militarist group, New Profile, and conducted in April 2001, as a joint project of New Profile, the Hebrew University School of Education, in Jerusalem, and Hakibbutzim College of Education, in Tel-Aviv. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first conference ever to exclusively focus on the militarization of education, and address questions such as: How are the stories we tell our children militarized? How are such militarized stories naturalized, rendered “normal” and unremarkable. Which educational means serve to teach militarized narratives? And how is it that these are acceptable and routine elements of the social institution of education in Israel. How do various rituals, field trips, cultural products such as toys and advertising nurture a militaristic world view? And how do these come to be so thoroughly mundane as to be virtually invisible?

In Israel, school children often visit army exhibitions and army camps. They start doing so in pre-school, on particular national holidays or on various other occasions. Pre-school and elementary school students are requested annually to prepare packages of sweets and letters of appreciation for soldiers “at the front,” and deliver these to class for joint dispatch. Entire schools and youth movements take part in fundraising campaigns to provide better recreation facilities for soldiers. Junior high and high school students are often obliged by their schools to attend lectures given by army officers. High school studies include pre-army training, and classes are occasionally invited view the live fire drills of army units. Army bases regularly host groups of young students, who they introduce to various aspects of the military. Students who dare to object are sanctioned and silenced. In 197xxx, one of us, that is Haggith, was given a severely damaging “Fail” in “Conduct,” after refusing to take part in a pre-army training course, and as a result, could not get in to the high school of her choice. In 2000, a friends’ son who studies at a school of the arts, was told he would not be able to attend an outdoor painting workshop if he refused to attend a pre-army training camp. Only an appeal to municipal authorities changed the verdict. All this looks distinctly like the “conscription” of Israel's formal and informal educational systems for the education of compliant future conscripts. It also amounts to an extended effort to make the army, the draft, and war natural, automatically accepted elements in youngsters’ lives.
Education also plays a central role in creating the sharp gender divide and the resulting dichotomized world view involved in the normalization of war and the military. Dichotomies are heavily stressed in kindergarten, where children are taught unequivocal pairs of opposites: black and white, good and bad, day and night, big and small, strong and weak, girls and boys, Jews and Greeks, us and them. The repetition of, and emphasis upon, these and other oppositions, work to organize children’s consciousness in the patterns required for militarized thinking. The clear-cut binary oppositions, which are obviously false, construct the illusion of well-defined, precise dividing lines, where no such lines exist. This is one of the mechanisms of establishing the social construct which keeps militarism in place.

The successful enlistment of women to work to maintain the existing order, despite their systematic exclusion from power centers, is a facet of the militarism that governs every aspect of life in Israel, and a facet of the “internalization of oppression,” mentioned above. Most formal and informal education in Israel is carried out by women: by women teachers and mothers. Most of these women invest uncritically in reproducing the existing militarized order, that is the order which excludes them and assigns second class (or lower) status in the social hierarchy granting rights and influence. They serve as full accomplices in the preparation of boys and girls for conscription and for the acceptance of dichotomized, militarized thinking patterns. They do so in spite of the fact that this very large group of women educators has in hand a great deal of potential power, residing in its considerable influence on how children think about the world. The recognition of their power, of the potential power of an alternative view from the margins, could mobilize significant change in the existing social structure, and seriously challenge the militaristic organization of Israeli society. Teachers, educators, mothers in Israel (and elsewhere) hold the potential means for moving education in new directions, away from militarization, against patriarchal control, inequality and subjection.

Recognizing the potential power of educators and women in general, and hoping to activate it towards a process of social change, quite a few feminist thinkers and researchers – such as bell hooks, Donna Haraway, Francine D’Amico – consciously and intentionally employ critical feminist methodologies in their work. Similarly, we are intentionally employing critical feminist methodology in this scrutiny of educating for militarization. The decision to do so, like the analogous ones made by hooks, Haraway, D’Amico and others, is a consciously political act of resistance to exclusion and silencing. Feminism is, after all, a political movement. The school of Critical Pedagogy too seeks for and proposes educational practices that aim to construct political acts – of resistance to silencing and oppression. A notable point of convergence between the two philosophies is their shared emphasis on the crucial connection between political activism and theory/research. Both feminist thinking and Critical Pedagogy theories ascribe extreme importance to maintaining a direct and close connection between theory and practice. Both totally reject the claims that “proper” or “real” science should separate the two. Critical feminist pedagogy re-knits the banned link between “scientific,” theoretical generalizations, and personal, practical, concrete details. As part of its methodology, the feminist process, which is also a critical process, grounds theory and research in information provided by individuals and/or activists of political organizations. This affords a degree of public acknowledgement of the women and organizations that drawn on as sources (a guideline which is prominent in the work of feminist writers such as Cynthia Enloe, Cynthia Cockburn, Jacklyn Cock). Such work not only presents the knowledge drawn from ostensibly non-scientific sources, but in many cases, overtly includes and amplifies the individual voices of the women who provided this knowledge. Such studies can thus increase these women’s/groups’ visibility, intentionally disseminating their views and contributing to their empowerment.

Standard scientific-academic methodology characterizes reliable research as a-political. But feminist thinkers such as Sandra Harding or Donna Haraway contend that a-political research is an illusion, that every process of knowledge collection and knowledge building is guided by interests; is dependent on social-political power structures. The prevalent liberal pedagogy also holds that education doesn’t and shouldn’t prescribe to political views. But the critical feminist approach to education establishes just the opposite – that no education is a-political; The question is only whether the politics embodied in any given form of education are stated openly or hidden. This is an approach that supports, and works for, a connection between education, the creation of knowledge by every individual from the store of her or his routine personal experiences, and working for social change and an egalitarian society.

Carol Cohn asks whether more women participants in the community of security-related scientists would undermine the current silencing, and encourage expression of thoughts, feelings and claims that deviate from the presently accepted boundaries of the discourse. In her opinion, women who wish to survive in this community are forced to adopt its rules, and have no real chance of reforming or changing it. This conclusion seems to us to hold for many other institutions and systems including the education system in general, and academia in particular. This is why it is so vitally important to create new “game boards;” systems that exist outside and alongside of the institutional ones. Alternative spaces in which it is possible to utter and to hear deviant claims, thoughts, feelings; to acknowledge them in serious, enriching discussion. In some cases, the activist groups and organizations that serve feminist academics as sources of data and knowledge, also provide such new game boards. Such groups can constitute a novel and different public sphere, though often of limited scope. “Deviant” thoughts and feelings are not automatically labeled worthless within such spheres. No sanctions are automatically imposed on those who express them and they are often debated respectfully, and further developed through joint, stimulating, creative thinking.

The New Profile Movement, in whose founding we both took part, has created a public sphere for discussing topics that are still hard to address in Israeli society or in Israeli academia. The movement works for the development of a truly civic society in Israel. It works to end conscription, to legalize men’s right to conscientious objection, to de-militarize education in Israel, to the exploitation of and injury to women caused by militarism, to end the exploitation of and injury to other groups caused by militarism, to achieve the radical reduction of the role of the military in Israel's social structure. This movement makes space for debate on subjects which are usually banned from national security discourse. The feminist discourse taking place in New Profile expressly deals with individual people’s experience and feelings. Among other topics we have focused on the issue of fear as it bears, legitimately, upon army service, and looked at its broad implications.

This and many other discussions have been part of a process of liberating self-education. The group is an autonomous educational framework, which fully realizes the practice of feminist and critical pedagogy. It does so in many senses, the first of which is the way in which it combines knowledge-building with practical action for social change. Our action is fueled and guided by learning processes, and the learning processes in turn grow out of, and are fed by, action. Throughout the existence of the movement we have practiced intensive analyzing, reading, fact finding, writing and publishing, or in other words, research. In a spiral process, activism in the movement is constructed and adapted in response to the conceptualization following from the research, while the reality encountered and revealed through action is further conceptualized. This spiraling progression constitutes the new “game board” created by New Profile.

The group’s extended dialogue emanates directly from members’ pain and sense of outrage, their fears about their own future and/or that of their children. Driven by these pressing, highly relevant personal issues, the process of self-education has facilitated open expression of such fears, made space for unusual ways of looking at both these and other issues, and allowed the proposal of non-standard solutions. Our feminist and critical methodology of respecting, and attending to, individual voices and feelings; of mutual support and legitimization; and of the ongoing conceptualization of individual experience, have liberated the group from very strong taboos on thought, speech and action. As our community established an increasingly supportive public space where we could stage and contain their transgression, we were empowered to break the hold of very potent myths, such as that of “ein breira” (there’s no other choice), or of Israel as a peace-seeking state unwillingly subjected to war. In guiding us across these prohibited lines our feminist, self-education has been truly liberating and emancipatory.

One of the taboos we have broken is the automatically reverent attitude of Jewish Israeli society towards conscription and conscription law. Since its foundation in 1998, New Profile has been calling attention to steadily broadening fissures in the human foundations of the militaristic structure. We have collected data and discussed what we believe to be a highly significant rise in abstention from army service, among young men and women. We view this process, mentioned earlier, as one of the most momentous social trends ever in Israel. However, it has not yet been openly addressed by anyone in Israeli academia. Thinking in academic spheres in Israel may still, largely, be trapped in the concept which holds conscription law as an unquestionable given that can therefore not be posed as a legitimate or useful research question. To the extent that the subject of growing abstention from service is treated by Israeli academics, it is unfailingly pathologized rather than studied as a phenomenon. Such studies look at what is known as “the motivation problem,” that is, the question of why growing numbers of young people are apparently “insufficiently motivated” to serve in the military. The alternative discussion of this process proposed by New Profile, is a distinct example of a new “game board,” which the movement was able to create due to the fact of its independence, its operation outside of institutionalized frameworks of study/research.

In addition, the action taken by New Profile has moved parts of Israeli academia to focus attention on the militarization of Israeli education. No visible discussion of this subject was going on in Israeli universities or teachers’ colleges prior to the New Profile conference initiative. The broad discussion of it which is currently emerging is another example of, or section of, the new “game board” resulting from the collaboration of academic feminist scholars and a political movement. The fact that distinctly political bodies such as New Profile are capable of providing non-institutionalized spaces for knowledge creation and stimulating intellectual exchange, establishes them as crucial components to research and thinking in the fields of feminism, women’s studies and critical pedagogy. Academic researchers and thinkers in these areas need, and are empowered by, groups and women “in the field,” no less than they are needed by, and empower, such groups and women. A recognition of this fact is, in itself, one of the elements of a feminist and critical standpoint.

While writing the final words of this piece we have been witnessing the events of September 2001 in the United States – the suicide crashes into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington. At the moment it looks as if US responses will lead the world, and with it the Middle East, even deeper into the already spiraling cycle of militarized logic and organized violence. And yet, the magnitude of these events may – perhaps – move more and more people to envision and create together the kind of new “game boards” needed for dismantling the worldwide culture of war. That is what we dare to hope.




Revised 12/13/2023 GG  | 30M+ Hits Club on NNOMY

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