Civic feminism

The last thing Israel needs is American-style feminism. But Israel does need a “civic feminism.”

June 11, 2012 22:51
4 minute read.
Woman being sworn in

Woman being sworn in. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The last thing Israel needs is American-style feminism.

But Israel does need – desperately – what American feminism should have become: a “civic feminism” that emphasizes equality of responsibility and participation along with equality of opportunity and rights.

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A feminism that says to the men, “We’re all in this together.”

A feminism that says to the women, “Nobody who tells you that you’re weak or incapable is your friend. And everybody who tells you that society must lessen your life to accord with their interpretation of divine writ, is your enemy.”

Ironically, one place Israel can look to develop this civic feminism is the US military’s experience with servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 9/11, over a quarter-million American women have gone to war as volunteer professionals, and their performance has far outstripped expectation and law.

While US servicewomen have flown combat aircraft and served on warships for nearly two decades now, and have finally begun to serve on submarines, they are still legally barred from choosing virtually all specialties in the infantry, artillery, armor and special operations fields, or even formally serving with those units.

That has not stopped the US Army and Marine Corps from using servicewomen extensively in infantry and special operations: the services claim they are not violating laws against using women as combat soldiers because those women are merely “attached,” not “assigned” to those units.

Of course, because they are barred from infantry and special operations career fields, their training is often substandard compared to the men they are working with. Despite that, they have won decorations and awards for their performance in combat and proven that the military’s physical fitness standards for women bear little relationship to their actual capacity for strength, stamina and aggression.

The result is a database of women’s performance in combat and near-combat conditions, unique in human history, that validates none of the prophecies of disaster so gleefully put forth by opponents of women’s equality under arms before 9/11. The reaction by the institutional leadership of the military, particularly the Army and the Marine Corps, was to plan to continue to use women in combat while refusing to advocate that they serve like men, as individuals, unrestricted by their sex. However, congressional pressure has encouraged the military to take a second look at the issue.

One result is that the Marine Corps has announced that it is soliciting female students for its Infantry Officer Basic Course while trying to produce gender-neutral physical fitness standards for combat tasks. The assignment of successful female graduates into actual infantry units is not yet contemplated, because that will require congressional notification.

But this is the first time the senior leadership of the Marine Corps has not been forced – kicking and screaming – into doing the right thing by their female troops.

This is because the American military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven that equality works. And the people who have made it work are very often young men and women at the battalion level and below, who have grown up with very different ideas about men and women than their senior leadership. One of those ideas is that psychologically healthy, self-respecting men and women want more from each other than sex... and because, across all of life, relationships of equality work better, and cost far less, than relationships of domination and submission.

So the American experience is relevant to Israel, as both an unequivocal record of accomplishment and a caveat against letting cultural prejudices trump military realities and political equality.

This is not the place for an extended analysis of the Israeli situation.

Nor is it to condemn, wholesale, the haredim (ultra- Orthodox). But it is to suggest that the demands placed upon religious male soldiers by certain leaders of the haredi communities, that they refuse to take orders from women or learn from women instructors and the rest, is, in effect, to tell the men to scorn their comrades who, unlike the vast majority of haredim, share the burden with them. And when male soldiers heed these demands, even out of sincere religious beliefs, they degrade the women soldiers with whom they share the burden of defending this nation.

Moreover, the US experience shows that it is not women’s equality under arms, but their inequality, that reduces a military’s operational ability. Whenever the US military has treated servicewomen as human and professional equals, it has gained combat power. When hasn’t, it has created a class of troops that are stigmatized as untrustworthy and unreliable by the good men, and acceptable prey for the bad men.

Israel is endangered. Women have at least as great a stake in the survival of this Jewish nation and Western civilization – and the right and responsibility to contribute to both – as men do. Israel could do worse that to learn from America’s success.

The writer is an American olah hadasha. Her first book, Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know about Women in the Military (Seal Press, 2006), advocated the equality under arms of American servicewomen; it has since been awarded a Va’adat Omanim.

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