Where will the women be? Gendered implications of the decline of Israel’s citizen army

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Israeli society has long been debating the possible shift from a mass army based on compulsory recruitment to a professional military. Shmuel Gordon started this debate in 1993 with the publication of an article in Ma’arachot (the IDF journal) that called for selective recruitment (Gordon 1993). Two years later, Cohen and Suleiman argued in the same journal (1995) that, given the significant changes in the nature of the geo-political threat, and faced with a lack of consensus surrounding the army’s activities, a professional army that was not subjected to social pressures from the right and left wings might be preferable. In his influential book, Ofer Shelach (2003) deploys a discourse of exhortation to call for the establishment of a professional army. Conversely, Yagil Levy staunchly opposes any such transformation, which he predicts will have negative social and political consequences (Levy 2007: especially 334-7). Most authors, including those who oppose the shift to a professional army, assert that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is no longer a people’s army in the classic sense, and that the transition to a professional military has already commenced (Cohen 2008; Gordon 1993; Levy 2007; Shelach 2003). As Stuart Cohen argues, the notion of a “people’s army” is still too highly regarded to countenance a shift to the Israeli military’s formal “professionalization.” Nevertheless, the debate over the IDF’s status is now part of the Israeli consciousness (Cohen 2008: 166, 171). If the IDF does eventually undergo restructuring, the change will undoubtedly impact - perhaps dramatically - on the military’s gender regime, as well as on the gender order of Israeli society as a whole. However, with the exception of a few brief and unsystematic remarks (e.g., Shelach 2003: 124-5), this prospect has hardly been addressed. The present chapter aims to redress that imbalance. Its purpose is not to ask whether and when the IDF might become a professional army. Rather, it examines the possible consequences of such a move on the military’s gender regime. The status of women in the shift from mass to professional armies has been extensively studied, and existing research posits one main argument: given that most Western conscript militaries have traditionally restricted recruitment exclusively to men, the shift to a professional army would imply a dramatic increase in women’s enlistment rates and the integration of women in roles that were previously considered to be “masculine” (Haltiner 1998; Iskra et al. 2002; Segal 1995). By that gauge, Israel constitutes a unique case for analyzing the connection between the military and gender, both theoretically and empirically. The reason is straightforward. Since Israel is the only country that has extended compulsory conscription to both men and women since the state’s establishment (in 1948), the gender consequences of the transition to a professional army may be different from, or even contradictory to, the outcomes reported elsewhere. Hence, the Israeli case requires the presentation of an entirely new set of questions. Given that mandatory military service in Israel is tightly linked to the definition of citizenship, I wish to take the issue beyond women’s status in the IDF and ask how the shift to a professional force might influence the gender regime of society at large. I suggest that enquiry proceed at three levels: 1 macro: how will the shift to a professional military influence gendered meanings of citizenship and culture in Israel?.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Citizen Armies
Subtitle of host publicationIsrael’s Armed Forces in Comparative Perspective
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781135169565
ISBN (Print)9780415565462
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2010 Selection and editorial matter, Stuart A. Cohen; individual chapters, the contributors.


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