The Woman Fighter
One of the mythic icons of the Jewish woman fighter prior the 1948 war is that of a Palmach13 girl, hiding grenades in her bra. This mental image accompanied my upbringing, suggesting that women were brave and capable and that they contributed to Israeli independence as much as did men. Surprisingly, neither I nor my peers considered the evocative trope of (quite literally) explosive sexuality to be a possible aspect of the metaphor. The socialist model of equality underplayed female sexuality, and by the time I was a child—and Golda Meir a prime minister—power meant being “as good as a man"14 Moreover, if women did use their sexuality to forward nationalist goals in the 1940s, this aspect of their contribution was eradicated from, or minimized within, official narratives: the myth concentrated on their bravery rather than on their tactics.
Naturally, the reality of the fight for Israel’s independence was not exemplary of gender egalitarianism: only 10 percent of the Palmach members were women, and, during the 1948 war, only 20 percent of the Israeli army were women. Most women served as nurses, medics, communication specialists, and administrators (Bloom 1993). Very few served in combat roles, and those were controversial but necessary (due to the lack of trained male personnel). Combat roles for women were eliminated shortly after the war ended in 1949, when the army was able to train enough men. After 1949 women were drafted for a mandatory service period (now eighteen months) but were not positioned in combat units. However, in recent years, women have been trained for combat in ground troops; they have become tank and artillery instructors, and Israel has just seen the first woman pilot graduate from the air force’s prestigious pilot course. The fight to get into the course was initiated by Alice Miller, and when the army denied her access to it, she took the case to the Supreme Court and eventually won. She also pleaded her case with a veteran air force commander, and then Israeli president, Ezer Weitzman. Weitzman responded by saying, “Meidalleh (little girl in Yiddish), why don’t you go and knit socks for the soldiers instead?” This response publicly exposed the extent to which the patriarchal power structure in Israeli society is both hegemonic and oblivious to
gender issues. After all, the presidency in Israel is not political but ceremonial, and Weitzman did not even consider that his response might offend at least 50 per cent of the population he represents. Women’s organizations lobbied for Miller’s inclusion in the pilot’s course and sharply criticized Weitz – man.
The Israeli army, however, was not the first army to draft and train women in the region. The Palmach women were often trained in the British army, which, since 1941, recruited women for its Auxiliary Territorial Service (ats). Since the British did not want to send English women to the Middle East, they recruited 4,000 primarily Jewish, but also Palestinian and Armenian, women for their units, and even trained a few dozen to be officers (Bloom 1993,129-30). These women volunteers were faced with sharp societal criticism and were regarded as deviant. Anne Bloom conducted interviews with those volunteers and found that, “if not labeled outright as prostitutes, they were called adventure-seekers, husband-hunters, or escapees from unhappy marriages. Many women reported that their families were ostracized” (130).
Similarly, after Wafa Idris committed suicide in Jerusalem, the articles in the Arab press tried to explain her behaviour by alluding to her divorce (due to her inability to bear children) and her unhappiness when her ex-husband remarried and had kids. And Anne Applebaum (Slate, 2 April 2002) expresses astonishment at Akhras’s suicide bombing: “Not only was she not male, she was not overtly religious, not estranged form her family, not openly associated with any radical groups. She can hardly be described as a woman without a future. She was young, she was a good student, and she was engaged to be married.”15 In both the Palestinian and Israeli examples we see an attempt to associate the uncharacteristic behaviour of women fighters with personal, and particularly romantic, unhappiness. But when that explanation fails, the critics are unable to explain why a woman would choose such a path. In both societies this marginal behaviour is incorporated into a heroic national narrative that glosses over the problems these women experience in a male – dominated world. Israel prides itself on equality and uses the army, and the myth of women’s participation in the 1948 war, as an example of its enlightened nature.
The Palestinians, in turn, hail the women fighters as national symbols, and, on 1 March 2002, the Fatah movement announced the establishment of a women’s brigade in honour of the martyr Wafa Idris (Al Quds, 1 March 2002). In other words, while women are not considered or represented as equal to men on the battlefield (or off it), women fighters are put on a pedestal. It is important to note that Palestinian women also have numerous role mod
els, the most famous being Leila Khaled (Black September airplane hijacking in Jordan) and Dalal el Moughrabi (1978 hijacking of a bus inside Israel): these women became a stronger symbol for Palestine than did any male fighter precisely because their behaviour was considered to be unique. And, as mentioned above, since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987 many Palestinian women mobilized resistance movements, and many were arrested for active participation in the Intifada (Giacaman and Johnson 1989). Recently, an editorial in a Palestinian paper suggested that “he who marries a good girl will not be asked for a high bride price—a girl marries a warrior and asks for a rifle in place of a dowry” (Al Quds, 1 March 2002).
One of the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian women fighters is that outsiders consider the former to be courageous and the latter to be monstrous. The reasons for this are complex and are tied to historical as well as cultural norms that extend well beyond the scope of this chapter. Still, it is worth briefly articulating a few of these reasons. First, the 1948 war was fought when the world was recovering from the Second World War and was riddled with guilt over the Holocaust, so the images of Jewish women fighting for independence (in what was then coded as survival) were construed as courageous. Second, Israeli women were not seen as individuals but, rather, as part of a socialist system, the group, the kibbutz, the Palmach, and, later, the army. The collective nature of the struggle, and the inclusion of women as an integral part of it, softened gender-specific, film noir-ish patriarchal fears and, therefore, masked some of the issues at hand. In contrast, the Palestinian fighters are individuals, operating in cells with men but not trained or recruited in any organized fashion. Their national narratives of heroism are individualistic in nature and do not amount (yet) to the establishment of a group narrative.
Despite differences in reception in the West, I contend that, in both cases, through sacrificing their personal and private family lives (which are associated with femininity), the women become symbolic of, or synonymous with, the nation but then lose their prescribed gender identity as well as other aspects of their subjectivity.16 To exemplify the loss of female subjectivity I refer to the film The Battle of Algiers (1965). This film covers the last few years in the fln’s fight for independence from the French, and, as mentioned above, women took an integral role in this battle. In one scene we see three women prepare to carry bombs from the (Muslim) Casbah to the French part of town. They bleach their hair blonde, shorten their dresses (or exchange them for 1960s Western-style miniskirts), put on makeup, and thus mask their Islamic, or North-African, appearance (see fig. 30). The film then shows each one of them
Figure 30 Scene from The Battle of Algiers, 1965 (Criterion)
Figure 31 Scene from The Battle of Algiers, 1965 (Criterion).
passing through the checkpoints, reassembling at a shop so that a man can install and set the bombs and then drop them off at ice cream parlours, coffee houses, and the race tracks—all places were the French spend a good deal of time.
This scene shows how women characters perform a particular (Western) sexuality and enact an identity that enables them to “pass” as French and easily move between the Casbah and the French city (see fig. 31). In assuming this mask, they exchange their “Arabness” for “Frenchness” and, ironically, gain an even stronger “Algerianness.” But this willingness on the part of women to assume a visual identity in order to serve the nation suggests that their core identity is malleable. None of the male protagonists in the film could pass as French, so their identity is secured as Algerian or Arab—and, I would claim,
as “men" However, women’s visual (or ethnic) and behavioural (or gender) masquerade indicates that their femininity can be divorced from their national role; that is, as long as is necessary they are fighters but as soon as independence is achieved it is assumed that they will resume their “feminine” roles and become subservient wives and mothers. In any case, none of the female characters in the film is evolved and complex, none has subjectivity or much agency to begin with. We know nothing about their lives beyond their own screen actions, and we know nothing about their motives, ideological differences, and so on. I contend that the women represent an excess of symbolism: they are the heroic, suffering, struggling nation. And, as such, they are fetishized— not as sexual objects but, rather, as asexual national ones.
In films about Israel’s early days women fighters take on a similar role to that mentioned above, thus losing not only a gendered subjectivity but also any subjectivity whatsoever. In Exodus (i960) Karen, the young Holocaust survivor, makes it to Israel only to fight and die for its establishment. She is stripped of a personality and a future of her own, and stands as a symbolic representation of European Jewry, which needs to die in order to facilitate the birth of the new Jew (represented in the film by Ari Ben-Canaan). In her fascinating book Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen, Yosefa Loshitzky suggests a unique reading of Karen’s death and burial in the same grave with the “Uncle Tom” Arab, Taha. Loshitzky (2001, 9) points out that a subversive reading would indicate that the “Zionist state was established on the graves of the Palestinians and the Holocaust survivors.” Either way, she shows that the symbolic nature of the character of Karen (and of Taha, for that matter) eliminates her subjectivity while enabling her to function as a dramatic prop. Similarly, Ella Shohat (1987,58-76) shows that Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955), which supposedly tells the story of four 1948 fighters—three men and a woman—in actuality only tells the story of the men. The characters are a pro-Israeli Irishman, an American Jew, a Sabra (Israeli-born man), and an Oriental Jewish woman (see fig. 32). While the men each get to recount the story of how they got to that hilltop in a series of flashbacks, the woman is denied a story of her own; she thus lacks the individuality and unique identity given to the others. Shohat claims that this omission is a result of the woman being an Oriental Jew, but I would suggest that the combination of her gender and ethnicity serves as a double justification for not assigning her a story and, thus, subjectivity (see fig. 33).
To conclude this section I would like to suggest that women fighters are conceived as deficient with regard to performing a certain form of expected femininity (albeit they are not necessarily deficient with regard to sexuality);
Figure 32 Dead woman holding flag in hand, from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, 1955 (with permission of Ergo Media Inc.).
Figure 33 Dead woman covered with flag, from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, 1955 (with permission of Ergo Media Inc.).
instead, they perform an aggressive and physical (or masculine) role, which the national project incorporates as one of its symbols of national struggle. However, by taking that symbolic role, women fighters are stripped of ethnic or gen
dered subjectivity and are, in fact, objectified as icons.17 This objectification resolves patriarchal anxieties about violent women, or even about state violence in the hands of women, and at the same time produces a positive narrative of national struggle. To illustrate this point one can look at Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (2000), which tells the story of Malli, a Tamil fighter chosen for a suicide bombing mission (designed after the 1991 mission to kill Rajiv Gandhi). Malli is a very young woman, a skilled and fierce fighter, committed to the cause, and determined to execute it. But when she finds out she is pregnant— as a result of a one-night affair with a Tamil fighter whom she later watched being killed by soldiers—Malli starts to have doubts, and eventually she revokes her mission. It is interesting to note that Malli thinks of the fetus as a boy, and her reason for continuing to live involves raising him to avenge his father’s death. The film, then, falls into a patriarchal pattern, whereby Malli is accepted as a fighter (in avenging the death of her brother and fighting for independence) so long as she is neither sexual nor reproductive. Interestingly, it is patriarchy (in the form of an old man) that informs her she is pregnant (basing his assumption on an intuition and on her vomiting once), and immediately thereafter she “knows” that, indeed, she is pregnant. From that moment, too, the images start to emphasize her femininity, thus preparing the grounds for her to desert the mission, something the film clearly morally condones. In other words, as soon as her sexual subjectivity is enacted she is no longer a suitable candidate for the suicide mission” the icon of the nation now needs to take on the role of the mother-nation and raise her son to heroism.