By Marina Triner

After investigating the puzzle of the recent upsurge in positive legislation on gender equity in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), this paper argues that the globalization of Israel’s national culture has opened doors for gender equity. Though historically the country has been focused on security as a defining characteristic of civic belonging, the global phenomenon of post-Zionism emerged as a mechanism for the introduction of marginalized voices in dominant nationalist discourse. Through a review of literature on the role of women in the IDF, this paper will illustrate the historic gender discrimination in the traditionally masculine institution, and will argue that despite important criticism, post-Zionism has been well-suited to Israel’s contemporary needs, and has allowed greater gender equity both in the IDF and in society at large.


The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has laid bold claims to the dissemination of civic rights since the inception of the Jewish state. While embodying values of masculinity, the IDF has historically been inclusive of women through compulsory conscription of both genders. Despite generating a myth of gender equality through conscription, clear evidence suggests that this institution perpetuates gender-based difference through a variety of its regulations and practices (Herzog 1999, 124). By virtue of the IDF’s claims on citizenship, the militarization of Israel is one of the most important factors impacting gender relations of the society as a whole (Golan 1997, 581). At the same time, recent events, including court cases and subsequent laws, have introduced immense hope for positive change in the IDF’s gendered structure (Halperin-Kaddari 2004, 153). These events have coincided with the globalization of Israel’s national culture, which introduced the ideology of post-Zionism.

To make sense of the puzzling increase in steps towards gender equity within the IDF, this paper will ask, how does the globalization of Israel’s national culture affect the role of women in the IDF? In order to answer this question, this paper will first examine the historic development of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, which established the strong role of the military in creating gendered citizenship discourse. It will then discuss the advent of globalization-driven post-Zionism. The paper argues that post-Zionism opens prospects for increased gender equity within the military and in society at large by articulating new frameworks of nationalism that focus on the individual rather than collective identity. Lastly, this paper will present counterarguments to the improvement of gender equity within the IDF in connection to globalization. Following on, the claim that post-Zionism is the successful ideology most able to accommodate Israel’s current needs will be used as additional proof for critics of globalization, confirming the initial thesis.

The Pre-State Period: Constructing Zionist Nationalism

Israel’s narrative of survival has historically justified the society’s militarization since before the state’s inception, and this in turn shaped gendered citizenship rights. As Peterson (1998) argues, nationalism often employs the ideology of sameness at the expense of institutionalizing difference (41). While first establishing self-determination, nationalism subsequently excludes the non-elite group, finally dominating outsider groups (42). Such was the case with the Zionism, the Jewish national project that advocated for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, conceived in the late nineteenth century by European Jews who were excluded by their own nations (Mayer 2008, 329). Through Zionism, European Jews invented a national narrative that focused on the settlement and defense of their new homeland, overcoming its harsh conditions, and creating a new culture (330). Zionism was thus born out of the focus on defense, and further flourished on the ideology of constant need for survival, which was especially strengthened after the Holocaust. The concrete aspects of state identity dictated by Zionism led to the civic exclusion of groups that did not perfectly fit into this rigid nationalist discourse.

Women’s rights in society have traditionally been challenged by their role in the military since the pre-state period. The dominance of the theme of defense in the growing national narrative assured that citizenship rights would be tied to participation in cultivating the territory, both through physical force and labor. The “pioneer-farmer fighter” became an emblem of nationalism and masculinity (331). This rigid framework did not allow alternatives (330). Thus, the single dominant militaristic image impacted women’s citizenship directly through their inability to represent it. In the pre-state period, women made up only 20% of existing military organizations (IDI 2002, 8). However, even this limited participation of women was never official policy, and came under intense debate upon the establishment of the state (8). The debate in government signaled both the importance of the military to the state, and the close ties that army participation cemented with citizenship rights.

1948 and on: Women’s Civic Exclusion Through Militarization

Several regulations established gender inequity in Israel’s military since the state’s creation. While Israel was born out of a war of defense, it underwent six wars in its first fifty years of existence, increasingly strengthening the importance of the military (Klein 2002, 674). Several policies have existed since 1948 that alienated women from this central institution. As part of a republican discourse of citizenship, in which an individual contributes for the common good of the collective, mandatory conscription was established in Israel through the Defense Service Law of August 1949 (Sasson-Levy 2007, 484). The discourse around this conscription, however, made it exclusionary to women in important ways. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion wished for the military to be “an instrument of national building and a symbolic focus for national collective identity” (484). In addition, conscription was far more particular than universal in practice. The National Service Law of 1953 spelled out groups that were exempted from military service, including married women, pregnant women, and mothers (Klein 2002, 671). In 1978, a law also allowed religious women to be exempted (671). These exemptions resulted in a 90% rate of service for men, and a 60% rate for Jewish women (671). Though both are recruited at eighteen, men serve a year longer than women (Moore 1998, 181). This gives women the message that they are not as important or necessary in maintaining the security of the nation, one of the most important ways in maintaining citizenship.

IDF policies also institutionalized a clear division of labor, mimicking traditional notions of gender inequality. The independent Women’s Corps (CHEN) was established in 1948, and the Defense Service Law of 1950 prescribed its activities (IDI 2002, 8). The guidelines of the law included the importance of motherhood for the survival of the nation, the enabling of the participation of men in the battlefield through their replacement in rear positions by women, and the possibility of reexamining women’s roles in combat during an emergency (9). Women were therefore placed in a subordinate position that could only be reconfigured when the collectivity was critically endangered. During the post-state period, these separate female units were legally confined to the ‘rear’ only, banned from ‘front’ war zones (Moore 1998, 181). This division of labor reinforced ideas of protectionism and motherhood as gendered duties in the whole of society. While men were the protectors and defenders, women were sent to safer zones and asked to improve the nation’s birthrate. Most importantly, women were now banned from combat roles (181). As Dar and Kimhi (2004) explain, Israel’s national security is largely maintained through combat roles in the army, and those that participate in these important roles achieve a higher status in society overall (434). The female soldier’s role was to participate in “administrative, professional and auxiliary roles in order to release male soldiers for combat roles” (Moore 1998, 182). This clearly subordinate division projected the idea that women could not do the same things as men. The traditional female roles were further replicated by discrimination based on looks within female roles, as women were selected for their jobs based on their outer appearances (182). Such attitudes furthered women’s subordination and were a clearly negative development for an already marginalized group.

The different experience of female and male soldiers in the military institution transfers to marginalization of women in society at large. The hegemonic identity of the combat soldier shapes a “hierarchal order of gendered and civic identities (…) and reconstructs differential modes of participation in, and belonging to, the Israeli state” (Sasson-Levy 2002, 357). Such a hierarchy naturally disadvantages women solely by virtue of their gender, disempowering them from excelling in military and civic life, and symbolically depicting them as less patriotic. In contrast, during their military service, Jewish Israeli men accumulate social and symbolic capital, such as social networks with their peers, practically expressed as advantage in civilian life (Klein 2002, 679). Employers in central industries such as high-tech and El-Al, the central airline, recruit men directly from the military (780). “The ex-general is extolled and admired (…). Moreover, he is considered an expert, with experience and knowledge, on the subject that has priority over all other topics in a society at war: security” (Golan 1997, 538). The inability of women to fulfill this role equally to men because of structural constraints significantly impacts them in society. A military background is also essential for public office, such that the proportion of women in the Knesset or Israeli parliament has never exceeded 12% (Klein 2002, 780). This excludes women from government jobs, and bars them from creating policies which affect their own lives.

Globalization of National Culture: Post-Zionism

Globalization produced a trend in Israel that upheld the value of the individual over the collectivity, challenging the dominance of security discourse. Uri Ram (2008) presents an account of the introduction of global cosmopolitanism through the globalization of Israel’s national identity. Post-Zionism infuses narratives of marginalized groups, including women, into the dominant discourse of Zionism, so that diverse social groups are given a path to articulate their identity in the public arena (234). Celebrating the individual, the trend of post-Zionism, sought to promote liberalization and openness, lowering boundaries of identity (233). It promoted a lower level of conflict and a higher degree of global integration, drawing individuals to cosmopolitan culture (233). The lack of emphasis on conflict confirms the loss of prestige of the IDF in defining identity. Post-Zionism challenged the Jewish-Israeli identity created by Zionism, and offered the creation of a civic Israeli identity instead (208). Thus, room was created for expression of individual identities that were once invisible.

Post-Zionism was successful in mobilizing much of Israeli society. Emerging in the 1980s and 1990s in conjunction with economic liberalization, post-Zionism espoused several movements, including Yesh Gvul, New Profile, Black Laundry, and anarchy all of which directly challenge the military (232-3). These movements included civilians that refused to serve in the IDF and soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories (233). By virtue of these actions, soldiers symbolically put down a collective definition of identity, challenging the mainstream focus on security. As Kelman (1998) suggested, it was clear that the state’s agenda and the preoccupation of major segments of society were shifting during this time (47). He explains post-Zionism not as a rejection of Zionism, but as a creation of a more democratic state that celebrates individual rights regardless of ethnicity, sex, race, etc facilitated by a more secure relationship with Israel’s neighbors (49-50). Hence, globalization produces a liberal discourse of individualism in a formerly collectively oriented society fixated on security.

Globalization as a New Hope for Gender Equity

Beginning in the 1990s, the transition of Israeli society to Post-Zionism coincides with tremendous achievements for women in the IDF. As Halperin-Kaddari (2004) suggests, a “quiet revolution” may be taking place within the masculine institution (153), as a string of previously unimaginable changes have suddenly appeared. In the mid 1990s, the IDF began to incorporate women into several occupations that had been closed to them, and to address sexual harassment complaints that previously went unheard (Cohen 2008, 123). An immense landmark, the Alice Miller Supreme Court Case of November 1993 challenged IDF’s refusal to accept women to apply for combat fight training as sexual discrimination (IDI 2002, 10). The court ruled in Miller’s favor, and the IDF was forced to accommodate women into military functions. The case also established an amendment to the Defense Service Law, stating that every female soldier has the same rights as males in military service roles and volunteer female service will be equal to volunteer male service (11). In September 1999, gender equity was crystallized as Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz unveiled a plan to open the roles for women in the IDF, including them in positions that they had been excluded from until the present (Sasson-Levy 2003, 446). This list of improvements had never before surfaced with such vigor, and a link to the positive effect of globalization (to be explained in more detail) makes clear the possibilities that Post-Zionism offers.

The process of positive change that began in the 1990s greatly intensified in the 21st century. In 2000, the 1986 Defense Service Law, calling for equal military service for both genders, became official (Cohen 2008, 123). The Women’s Equal Rights Law legalized filling military positions on the basis solely of qualifications rather than on gender (123). Additionally, participation in the labor force was no longer defined by military record, facilitated by government emphasis on social and economic expenditures, rather than military spending (Mayer 2008, 339). This development directly links gender equity with the loosening of collective identity definitions through post-Zionism. In June of 2000, the IDF dismantled CHEN, the Women’s Corps that directly institutionalized gender segregation since the inception of the state (Cohen 2008, 123). In September of the same year, the Knesset overcame opposition to placing women in combat positions (123). Consequently, Roni Zukerman became the first woman to pilot a combat aircraft, and women began to be assigned to counter-insurgency operations in the territories (123). In 2003, the IDF opened a gender-neutral officer’s course as well as mix-gender field units (123). In January 2005, General Staff order no. 33.0207 implemented equal rights for every male and female soldier in fulfilling any function of military service (124), a final sentiment of the victory of post-Zionist ideology. As stated by Smooha (1998), the advancement of the peace process, as part of post-Zionism, would further decrease the importance of military and security, eliminating “men’s great advantage and [eroding] the macho patterns of society” (43). As collectivism declines, women will be enabled to fight for equality (43). The dominant discourses produced by the central role of the military in Israel are already diminishing, allowing women to gain equal footing with men by virtue of individualism.

Alternative Conceptions: the Lack of Improvement in Gender Equity in the IDF

Despite the impressive claims made by theorists of post-Zionism, other scholars present evidence demonstrating that women’s position is still highly disadvantaged. Orna Sasson-Levy (n.d.) argues that the IDF is an over-gendered institution, meaning that gender discrimination is entrenched within its organizational mechanisms and culture, and legislation and organizational changes are not enough to produce change (17). She concludes that it is important to remember that the inclusion of women into the military leads to a glorification of the military as egalitarian, when in reality this institution perpetuates war and death (18). In another article, Sasson-Levy (2008) argues that rather than increasing equality, individualism “can be seen as an individual effort to improve oneself, a masculine personal achievement of self-actualization” (316). Through this lens, the move from collectivism to individualism can actually harm women. Similarly, despite discussing recent positive changes in the army, Cohen (2008) points out that the new policies have modest practical outcomes (124). More opportunities have not resulted in equal opportunities, as women still occupy segregated occupations and are exempt from service far more than men (124). Additionally, the removal of CHEN places women career officers into a more masculine-dominated environment where career advancement is even more impossible (124). Even women assigned to masculine roles, such as combat units, simply develop masculine behavior to adapt (124). This behavior complies, rather than challenges the gendered nature of the IDF. Collectively, these authors argue that post-Zionism has not promoted equality, and has even, in many cases, worsened the divisions amongst the genders within the single most important institution in Israeli society. Additionally, Uri Ram (2008) argues that neo-Zionism, an ethnic discourse of nationalism propagated by globalization, has equal power to post-Zionism in Israeli society. Fusing together Judaism and Zionism, neo-Zionism sanctifies the territory and community, so that Judaism becomes “a nationalist-territorial cult” (221). This ideology tragically leads to increased exclusion.

Despite these important critiques, post-Zionism is resolutely growing in Israeli society, and is now able to accommodate the country’s new needs far better than any other ideology. During Israel’s modernization, nationalism was maintained by territorial colonization and state building (Ram 2008, 233). In the period of globalization, several pressures emerged which enable a transformation of the concept of nationalism. While European Jews created Zionist ideology, the new post-Zionism is a narrative built by several voices that are creating a new, different story of a diverse people (234). As Kelman (1998) illustrates, the original goals of Zionism have been fulfilled and are no longer as relevant, as the Jewish state has been stable for a long period of time, and has been continually developing diplomatic relations with Arab states in the region (50). Therefore, the basic existential threat to the existence of the state has been removed. Though Israel faces challenges in nation-building that to some degree are more imminent than its security problem, post-Zionism is most equipped in dealing with these by bringing together factions in society and allowing them to have a voice (50). Both through its dominance, and through its suitability to the current state of Israeli society, post-Zionism lends itself to absorption and utilization in Israel.

Rather than arguing that women have decisively won their battle for equality in the IDF and in citizenship discourses perpetuated by it, this paper seeks to contend that post-Zionism opens new opportunities for women to have a voice in dominant discourse. As Moore (1998) argues, social collective action for gender equality has flourished since the 1990s, as the peace process shifted to incorporate dialogue of women’s rights and equality (184). Previously, feminists in Israel were prevented from transforming social institutions due to a “lack of ideological pluralism, prevalence of religion, and dominance of total and masculine institutions” (174). As has been illustrated, post-Zionism is slowly eliminating these obstructions and allowing women to speak out. Post-Zionism allows for a variety of narratives, creating pluralism. It brings forth a discourse of citizenship that is open to all, minimizing the specific stronghold of religion, and therefore alleviating the dominance of masculine institutions, like the IDF. Altogether, women have become able to be more vocal about their roles in the IDF and in society at large. As Moore concludes, “No longer complacent and satisfied with their allotted roles and place in the social order, Israeli women engage today in social actions to increase social equality” (183). With the advent of globalization and post-Zionism, women are vocal because they finally can be. There is hope that this voice will be well-received by society.


The analysis presented here establishes a framework for understanding the impact of globalization on gender equity in the IDF and Israeli society as a whole. Historically, women have been disadvantaged by the structure and organization of Israel’s military, placing them in subordinate and segregated roles. The importance of the military in citizenship discourse was cemented with the advent of Zionism as the ideology upon which the state was established. The globalization of Israel’s national culture presents an alternative to Zionism that could trigger real practical change in women’s military roles. This change is invaluable as it allows women greater citizenship rights in a society focused on defense, while at the same time leading that society to look for other narratives to redefine its identity. This conclusion can further be expanded to other marginalized groups, such as Palestinians, Mizrachi Jews, Israeli-Arabs, and various immigrants. It is my hope that the concrete path for positive change for women, as well as for this array of marginalized groups, will be the subject of future research, establishing a new way for Israelis to view themselves individually and collectively.


Photo courtesy of delayed gratification, ISM-NC, and Amid Farshad Embrahimi


  1. This is an incredibly thought-provoking article. The author manages to take a complex issue and produce a coherent, historical analysis on gender equity in the Israeli military and beyond. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    I have some comments.

    The author wrote, “The National Service Law of 1953 spelled out groups that were exempted from military service, including married women, pregnant women, and mothers (Klein 2002, 671).”

    While exemption definitely relates to exclusion, and I’m not arguing with this particular relation or analysis, I do want to point out that exemption does not necessarily mean exclusion (In the US, who doesn’t want to be exempted from jury duty?) And, I must admit I have little to no knowledge of Israeli policies, but particularly if they are operating to some degree on a conscription basis, then “exemption” might be considered more of a privilege than an excluded category. In many societies, pregnant women are exempted/excluded, whether officially or unofficially, from many (physical) activities. It might be perceived as discriminatory or special treatment. And maybe it’s just my personal preference, but I’m glad my mother wasn’t in the military (particularly a combat position) when I was in her womb. Again, I’m certainly not arguing that Israeli women did not face exclusionary policies, clearly women in every patriarchal society face these issues, but it’s just a sidenote on the exemption = exclusion description.

    “IDF policies mimic traditional notion of gender inequality.”
    I definitely agree that these policies mimicked and replicated the already-held patriarchal hegemonic norms in society. Women have and continue to be constantly placed in subordinate positions to men. However, I think the discussion on gender equity is often reduced to “men dominate” or “men are more important”, and in practice it may seem that way, but it really depends on how the idea is framed. The author writes,

    “Women were therefore placed in a subordinate position that could only be reconfigured when the collectivity was critically endangered […]This division of labor reinforced ideas of protectionism and motherhood as gendered duties in the whole of society. While men were the protectors and defenders, women were sent to safer zones and asked to improve the nation’s birthrate.”

    This sort of ties into my earlier comment about exemption as slightly different from exclusion. Again, I agree women (and men) are conferred gendered duties by society, and historically women have been placed in subordinate positions to men. While analysis challenges these past policies, it also seems to overlook or disregard the social/cultural justifications for these policies at that time (and still today in many cases). Many politicians and other leaders made efforts, whether consciously or unconsciously, to place women in subordinate positions but I also recognize the arguments for such policies (which did not view it from a lens of gender equity). While many scholars, activists, politicians, and concerned citizens would deem such policies as discrimination, the authors of such policies might respond that it wasn’t their intention to subordinate women but rather protect them because they are MORE important for society, not less. Instead of saying, “We don’t want women in the military because they are less important to us” they would say, “We don’t want women in the military, especially combat positions, because they are more important to us and we don’t want them killed.” Again, I’m not very knowledgeable of Israeli military issues but I know that in the United States, military enrollment is not accurately representative in terms of education and economic background to the general national population. Serving in the military is patriotic? That reason is not strong enough for many US politicians that personally shy away from military service. On an individual level, many like to feel that they are “exempt” from such duties because they can contribute more to society in other ways. While the analogy is not wholly congruent, I think those that would want women exempt from the military might be using a similar rationale…that they are more important for society in other ways.

    I could go on, but this is getting to long.

    Great article!



  2. A timely piece – Just last week the BBC World Service broadcasted a series on the radio called “Women at War” and one of the women featured was a combat soldier from Israel.


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