letter from Shani Werner, a draft resister
Below is a letter from Shani Werner, a draft resister who has already received her exemption from the Israeli army on grounds of conscience. Shani is one of the initiators and organizers of the high school seniors group that wrote two open letters to the Prime Minister declaring refusal to serve in the army. The last letter was signed by some 300 young draft resisters.
Shani's letter grew out of a broadening discussion of the experience of young women draft resisters in face of Israeli militarization. I think it offers an important and unknown understanding of how powerfully militarization and the sexism closely connected to it, structure personal experiences, political action and citizenship in Israel.
As a result of an ongoing discussion in New Profile, epitomized in Shani's letter, we have begun to work on counteracting the silencing and marginalization of women's act of draft resistance. This will include highlighting the virtually unknown women's draft resistance movement. We are collecting testimonies from women draft resisters, planning a study day on the subject, and will be doing our best to publicize the movement far and wide. As Israel is currently the only country with mandatory conscription for (Jewish, secular) women, the draft resistance of Israeli women is a unique phenomenon. New Profile is the only organization in Israel (besides the high school seniors themselves) systematically supporting women's resistance and offering young women the information and assistance they need to realize this legally recognized right.
The seemingly basic and simple question, how big a movement is it?, is hard to answer. A press item from a few months ago cited a rise in the the number of women resisters exempted from service, but stated that it was classified information. However, regardless of statistics, this movement is clearly happening and growing. It is a social process with a definite impact and importance, which Israeli army and state authorities would rather conceal.
When we wrote our first Seniors' (Shministim) Open Letter (in the summer of 2001), we wrote it all together - young women and men draft resisters. It didn't occur to us then to ask ourselves whether both kinds of resistance (women's and men's) belonged together. We were so convinced that women's draft resistance is identical in importance to men's, that we weren't even aware of the significance we had given the letter in placing women's and men's resistance on the same plane. Personally, I only came to internalize this significance when faced with people's responses - "What's that supposed to mean?" or - "Way to go!" I felt we had done something special and important.
It's been a long time now, over a year and a half. Gradually, I got frustrated. I started feeling how inside our protective "hothouse," the Seniors' in particular, and that of the Israeli Left in general, we had made a mirror-image of just what we set out to oppose. We had militarized draft resistance!
We hadn't changed the infuriating image we object to so strongly, that of the good woman awaiting the return of "her" soldier from the front, ironing his uniform. We had created her mirror-image - a woman hoping for the swift release from prison of the male draft resister, meanwhile cheering him on from her vantage point on the hill, opposite the military prison where we often hold demonstrations.
Of course, the resistance of the boys-men is very important. And we, the girl-women resisters outside of prison, take care to support and encourage the resisters doing time inside. But I think the pattern of behavior initially arising from the fact that "the men are in prison, and the women get exempted from service," has set and hardened into certain patterns of thought.
Women's draft resistance is no longer as meaningful to us as men's. We don't dwell on the humiliation to which the conscience committee subjects girls. We've stopped conducting an ongoing discussion of the phenomenon of women's draft resistance, and we've almost totally stopped trying to market it to others (in acquiescence with the excuse that "the media isn't interested"). Meanwhile we discuss the imprisoned men resisters over and over.
My refusal to enlist in the army, which I used to see as a political-public act, has now become private. ("The personal is the political" - the mantra runs through my head. But the personal only becomes political when it is allowed a voice!) As public discourse is unaware of it, as the discourse of the Left ignores it, the draft resistance of girls-women remains personal, not to say silenced. It's precisely as easy for us to ignore women's draft resistance as it is for the IDF to ignore women's military service. If women's service in the army is seen, in any case, as desk work and serving coffee, and given that the IDF allows girls exemptions from service relatively easily, our resistance is treated like "coffee serving resistance," which even the army accepts (and if the army doesn't need us, unlike the imprisoned boys, then can our resistance have any significance?).
The women's draft resistance movement, a movement of dozens of young, consciously feminist objectors of conscience, no longer exists. We're no more than a team of cheerleaders. Accompanying the boys as they go into and out of prison, formulating petitions and letters, demonstrating, visiting the prisoners. Our singularity, as girls who are actively resisting, has been obliterated. Like other Leftist women, we are busy supporting the incarcerated resisters, and our own action has lost its meaning. We were taught our roles long ago, in kindergarten: the men fight at the front; the women support them back home. While the male resisters don't fight, they still spearhead the struggle. And the young women? Wearing our civics we stay and offer support from behind. Just substitute "to prison" for "flying," and "prisoners" for "fliers" in the old saying, and you'll get: "The best men go to prison; the best chicks go to the prisoners."
I still believe in the importance of my draft resistance, and in the vital necessity of supporting imprisoned men resisters. But I don't want to do a cheerleading act on the hill. I'm fed up with feeling my voice is inaudible, and that I can only change things through the acts of others, never through my own. Most of all, I'm frustrated because instead of creating a new reality, we operate in the same set patterns. Do I have no choice other than being someone's "little woman" (if not the military hero's, then the resister hero's)?
Shani Werner, 31