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The Life of an Israeli Woman in a Culture of War
Nava Elyashar

My name is Nava Elyashar. I am Jewish, Israeli, married, the mother of three sons, secular by choice, and a feminist peace activist out of conviction. I am a computer systems analyst, and live in Jerusalem. For many years I have been active in progressive organizations aiming towards Peace and equality.


When I was asked to talk about my "daily war experience and the established practices of relationship to overcome those conflicts", I realized that there are two completely different narratives that I could talk about today.


Usually I would tell you about the obvious evil caused by the occupation, about the suffering of the Palestinian population, about the minor help that we, Israeli Peace activists, can deliver to ease that huge suffering, about our way of opposing war by going to checkpoints, helping Palestinians to get human rights etc.


I would end my talk by calling upon the Israeli government, upon your government and upon all free states to do whatever is possible in order to stop the occupation and its wrong doings.


This side of the story, the one that you always hear about, narrows the issue of war experiences by painting the conflict in colours of black and white. You will be able to distinguish 'good' from 'bad', heroes from criminals, masters from victims. Yet, this will not enable you to enter deeper into the roots of our conflict, to explore the reasons why people act the way they do. You will not understand how we became what we are today and, most important of all, what are the ways to begin changing people's attitude using an inner view of their real life. Adding all sorts of colours to the picture, will stress the fact that in every human being you can find both: the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’.


Militarism in Israel


In Israel, Militarism is as natural as breathing. It does not begin when you get to the Army and does not end when you return to civil life. It is programmed into our system, our mind, our conscience, and our soul, from birth to death.  Parents spend eighteen years nurturing and loving their children. Then, they fully accept the obligation of sending them to the army, to kill and to get killed. Israelis still believe that we are the victims being compelled to fight for our lives against powerful forces.


Militarism influences our life from the very first day at kindergarten, where we are told glorious stories, and keep on doing so long after we are parents sending our children to the same educational system. Israeli Militarism goes hand in hand with traditional chauvinism and patriarchy. Militarism is a way of thinking, a way of feeling and a way of behaving. Sometimes it is the only way for an individual to be accepted into the strong, protecting arms of the community.


Few young Israeli men and women refuse to serve in the Israeli Occupying Army. They are put in Military Prisons for months, time and again, but they don’t break. I hope that our struggle against Militarism had some influence on the brave choice that those young people took.


Yet, most of our young children, reaching the age of eighteen, are not in a position even to consider refusing to serve in the Israeli army. The way they were raised directs them to only one way: going to the army.


I am a mother to three sons. Two of them served in the army in non-combat units. My youngest son is about to follow in their footsteps very soon. My sons were raised in a family where both parents oppose occupation but sometimes the influence of friends, teachers and the Israeli propaganda overrules the direction that we try to give them. I believe that my sons absorbed enough liberal values in order to oppose occupation, yet, even they believe that Israel must defend its existence at all means, including the continuation of holding the whole Palestinian population in a 'prison' of checkpoints and walls.


A recommended “Military service” opens doors for a better career in civilian life. Those who decide to be professional soldiers will leave the Army at the age of 40 to 42, with full pension and a better start in civil life.


Ex-soldiers join political parties where they continue to support the 'war machine'. Some will become headmasters of high schools and have direct influence on shaping the minds of their young students. Others will become directors of financial groups or private businesses and easily win governmental bids in the favour of war and that direction. Even long after leaving the Army they will still be able to perpetuate Israel as a Military state.


No surprise that Israeli women were the first to start the fight against Militarism in Israel. Most women had no advantage in serving the Military system. Many women still have to spend two years in subordinate positions, typing and making coffee.


Till recently, sexual harassment in the Army was considered to be inside “The normal frame of behaviour”. It was hard to complain against an officer even when rape was committed. The accused officer was always described as a “superb commander” and the victim was removed from the regiment with no treatment and no recognition of her sufferings. This year, for the first known time, a Druse officer was found guilty of sexual abuse and actually serves time I jail. Would his punishment be the same if he were a Jew?


The only democracy in the Middle East


Israel calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle-East” declaring that “Peace will be accomplished only when our opponents will adopt a democratic system”. Are we really a democracy while occupying another people? 


The basic principles of democracy do not exist in the occupied territories.  At a meeting with a very high ranking officer, in charge of a large section of the Occupied Territories, he said: “The Palestinians are under Military rule; they have no rights, though they should have human rights”. On daily actions this commander helped us a lot in our struggle to assist the Palestinians when their basic human rights were denied. But, being committed to the evil system of occupation, he could not change a lot.


There are some powerful groups, mostly extreme religious Jewish ones that question the need for being democratic. Human rights often are in contradiction to their religious rules. They try, and even succeed, to bend the civilian law under the old doctrine of their interpretation of the Bible.


Both Jewish and Muslim women are the main victims of those antique rules. We are not considered equal to men. A Jewish woman cannot end her marriage unless the man is willing to give her the divorce. Civil marriages are recognized in Israel, but divorces must be made in a religious court.


Feminist groups have been struggling for years to change the situation. We had some success when Family Courts got the authority to deal with money distribution and children's affairs. But, if the husband refuses to accept the ruling of the Family Court, he can squeeze every advantage from his wife by saying, “I am not willing to give her a divorce”.


The Palestinian population inside Israel


The Israeli law sees the Arab population living in the state of Israel since 1948 as equal to the Jewish population. They should get the same rights, the same allocations of resources and the same advantages. They just don’t get it. Many Israelis justify the discrimination against the Arab population as a necessity “While the War is going on”.


Arab cities lead in unemployment. Discrimination affects education and health services. In agriculture, water allocation to Arab villages is half the allocation that the nearby Jewish villages get. Sidewalks, drainage pipelines, public transportation or public gardening are non-existent in most Arab communities. The Arab population reached equality only in one thing: they pay as much tax as we do.


Israeli Muslim, Christian and Jewish women work together to advance civil equality. Yet, we still have a gap of understanding each other's inner needs. It is easy for us to fight together for better jobs, housings, health or education; will we be able to build a stable bridge to combine our traditions, desires and hopes?


Israelis against oppression and against occupation


Many groups of Left-Wing activists, Israeli and Palestinians, work together towards Peace. We hurt the injustices taking place every day, the endless killing and the despair that is spreading throughout Palestine and Israel. We try to promote ideas of sharing and partnership. We stress to the general public that when we all can see every Palestinian child as the son of a mother who loves him just like we love our sons, only then, can we truly prevent the killing of children, on both sides.


Terror actions only lead to terror reactions. In order to build trust we have to work positively by helping, talking, listening, healing, building, feeding….


The Jewish population inside Israel


In the eyes of the outside world we are often looked upon as 'The Israelis', as if we were a group of five million Jewish twins sharing a huge nationality. Some will say 'Most of the Israelis', recognizing a bit of diversity caused by the few groups of 'Peace activists'. Usually Israelis refer to the Peace activists as a group of 'Trouble makers, traitors who prefer to love and understand the enemy rather than their own blood brothers'. 


The Jewish population in Israel is divided by tradition, by origin, by gender, by location, by political vision, by level of education, by access to health facilities, by financial position, by skills and by opportunities. We are far from being equal to each other and this is killing our civil sector from the inside.


If you are born into the 'right' family your chances to follow their success are good. If you are born into the 'wrong' family, your chances to close the gap of inequality and reach the fulfilment of your potential skills are very little. This unhealthy social gap is supported by the Israeli government in order to divide and to rule.


The Israeli government does almost nothing to close the gap between the rich and the poor. On the contrary, in my opinion, they will do everything in order to widen the gap. Israeli leaders know that on the day that this gap will cease to divide the population, the war machine will have no more money, human resources or 'legal cause' to exist. Our rulers fear that a day will come when they will have to pay for their wrong doings.


It is not so surprising that most Peace activists are from the middle classes. While at least 50% of the Israeli population comes from Arabic speaking countries, most of the Peace and human rights activists come from English or German speaking countries.


We have the advantage of being well educated, live in better financial condition and are in a position to look at the whole picture and cry from anger and frustration.


We try to reach out, to explain that the outcome of war and of occupation is affecting the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Their poverty is based on an economic system that prefers to spend money on war actions rather than on building new horizons to those who have nothing. To us it is clear that we have to change the whole system in order to finally put the inner problems in the front of the nation's goals. Yet, we are opposed by very strong forces that will do anything in order to keep our voice shut.


The most frustrating reaction comes usually from those whose only hope of improving their lives is by accepting the fact that they are sold, time after time, by the government they elected. The same young men that suffered poverty and inequality throughout their childhood are now the ones who fill the military field combat units. They are the fuel that makes occupation run and prosper.


In the past we thought that it was enough to explain “the true facts” in order to change the nation’s state of mind. Now, we know how na´ve and patronizing we were. Although we might have a better 'formal education' it does not mean that we know better. The only way of reaching out to others and breaking down walls is thru process that can be accomplished slowly, step by step, by education, love and understanding. As we all know, even Rome was not built in one day.


National Post traumatic syndrome


I would like to tell you my personal connection with Post traumatic syndrome. My husband was captured and became a prisoner of war in Egypt during the 1973 war and like many many other ex-soldiers he suffers from Post traumatic syndrome. This syndrome was not recognized by the Israeli government for about 30 years. Not having any visible wounds he got no treatment at all.


Those men stopped functioning in their normal capacities. Most of them lost the ability to proceed with their normal course of life. They could not hold on to a job, their marriages suffered or even ended and they hardly functioned as fathers. Some became so violent or depressed that they spent months in mental hospitals. In some severe cases, their children are now parents but the Post traumatic syndrome was transferred on to them and they also are not able to function.


I believe that most Israelis and Palestinians, children included, suffer from Post traumatic syndrome. The daily aggressive atmosphere in which we live, the bombings, the checkpoints, the killings, the house demolitions, the poverty, lead us to aggression, violence, and sadly to say, to loss of hope.


Summary and Conclusions


I did not talk about our daily activities against the occupation.


I did not talk about the activity of Israeli women of 'Machsom Watch' (Checkpoint Watch) who go in daily shifts to checkpoints, where Palestinians are denied the right of movement, where they are humiliated by an evil set of laws, where we can help a little, sometimes.


I did not talk about the weekly vigil of Women in Black that, since 1987, stand silently, dressed in black and hold black signs that read: “Stop the Occupation”.


I did not talk about Israeli groups that help Palestinian farmers to pick olives from their olive trees, to protect them from being attacked by settlers and prevent the settlers from stealing their olives while the policemen look aside.


I did not talk about Israeli medical staff reaching remote villages in the occupied territories, places that have no other access to medical help.


I did not talk about many other Israeli groups that each found its unique way of helping, and opposing the occupation; of trying to do the little they can to ease the hardship of the unceasing war.


Instead I have painted gloomy picture of the Israeli society, torn to peaces by forces that profit from the situation and have no wish to let us rise above the differences that part us.


Parliaments can gather and decide on issues of war and peace. They can transfer population, money, water, land, and all sorts of commodities, but in order to achieve real change we have to work from within, building bridges to connect ex warriors in friendship. These will take years of hard work but only we can achieve it.


I believe that peace will be a possibility only as the last step of reaching to each other. I hope that if not me, then my children will be wise enough to continue the battle for equality, and then, perhaps, they will be able to come to the “Promised Land of Peace”.


"The Middle Eastern states aren't nations, they're quarrels with borders."  P.J. O'Rourke