Beyond the tremendous responsibility of making their commanding officers coffee, the majority of female soldiers in the Israeli military (IDF) are consigned to exist in a mind-numbing routine which all but voids their existence and drives them insane. That is the hardcore truth as it is rather entertainingly portrayed in director Talya Lavie’s 2014 film, Zero Motivation. Except that wasn’t always the case.
In films made in the 1950s and early sixties about Israel’s War of Independence, brave, weapon-wielding female soldiers who fought alongside their male peers in battle and sometimes died too, were commonplace. Uri Zohar’s 1967 film, Every Bastard a King, marked the turning point in terms of female soldiers’ onscreen representation, which Israeli film only ever started to shake off in the early ‘00s. Actor Tami Tzafroni, a strikingly beautiful woman, appeared in a small part in the film which made her the big screen epitome of the native-Israeli (sabra) soldier.
Four years later, in Zohar’s 1972 film, The Rooster (aka Boys will Never Believe it), Tzafroni is seen waiting in the desert for the alpha male soldier (played by Topol) to arrive. When he does, she quickly slips out of her uniform for a quick romp onboard a grounded airplane. That is to say, her uniform is her only defining marker as a soldier and once that is removed, she becomes but the first in a series of sex-crazed women clawing at Topol’s chiseled, hairy chest.
In this pair of Uri Zohar films, the Israeli soldier’s heroism and masculinity are glorified and celebrated: both in bed and in battle: and for him to be the man, the female soldier had to be reduced to ‘some woman.’ Before long, military and femininity became mutually exclusive concepts and as such, in subsequent films female soldiers were typically seen only semi-dressed in uniform (if that), peering into the officer’s bedroom through his door if not already lying there in his bed. The doorframe seemed to frame her as if she were a photo – no more than a static, aesthetic prop with no weight or bearing whatsoever on the storyline. Suffice it to say, sexual harassment was the furthest topic on anyone’s mind – or lips.
Even when the New Sensitivity movement [a local version, if you will, of the French New Wave] rose to prominence with their defiance of Zionist tropes, and the soldier’s hitherto unassailable heroism and performance in combat was suddenly called into question and even became the subject of public inquiries, his virility between the sheets remained intact. However, whatever hits the male soldier’s representation might have taken, those did not in turn lead to a more favorable portrayal of his female counterpart. Little to no progress can be traced between Amram Amar’s Ceasefire (1950), the first feature to have been made in the just-established State of Israel, and Sam Firstenberg’s The Day we Met (1990). In both military melodramas, female soldiers are victims of kidnapping and imminent rape threats. All they can do on their part is to scream and wave their hands about helplessly, until the heroic male soldier sweeps in to the rescue.
Woman as victim is one of the most ancient cultural archetypes, going as far back to Andromeda who had been chained to the cliff and was waiting for the monster to devour her, or Perseus to save her – whichever came first. Another stereotype, albeit not as ancient, but whose historical and cultural roots run every bit as deep is Jew as victim. The State of Israel was established as the ultimate antidote against that stereotype, with the IDF being the crown jewel in this reconstituted image of the proud new Jew. All IDF soldiers are trained under the motto, “Masada shan’t fall again”; however, this declaration of potency and independence all but evaporates when it comes to the Jewish female soldier who is still, for all intents and purposes, a victim – on duty.
As said, early films set around events that had taken place during the 1948 Independence War, before the Palmach [Jewish resistance brigade] was subsequently disbanded to make way for the IDF, do feature some female protagonists who play an active, pivotal role in driving the plot forward and shaping the future of the State of Israel. However, following this ideological reshuffle, female soldiers were promptly banished from combat and relegated to a range of menial roles, and their commanding officer’s bed.
This realignment of roles is evident in films from the 1960s onwards, all of which seemed to embrace wholeheartedly and unflinchingly this revised gender hierarchy in the IDF. What is more, women were essentially excluded from the all-unifying struggle for the nation’s very survival. For instance, Peter Frye’s 1960 comedy, I Like Mike, follows the story of a young Israeli woman (Ilana Rovina) who is trying to evade mandatory conscription through marriage. Her would-be betrothed is a military officer (played by Topol). Ultimately, their romantic union serves as a bold illustration of this new division of gender roles whereby “our finest boys shall take arms and our finest girls shall be taken in their arms.”
Shmuel Imberman’s I Don’t Give a Damn (1987), a big screen adaptation of Dan Ben-Amotz’s novel of the same title, offers up a very similar division of roles except that here, there isn’t even the need for a move as elaborate as draft dodging. Upon turning 18, Raffy (Ika Zohar) is conscripted to the IDF and begins a grueling training period after which he is sent to Lebanon and later, returns in a wheelchair. All the while, his girlfriend Nira (Anat Waxman) is only ever seen going to art classes or waiting for him in bed; despite the fact that she, too, is of conscription age.
There were days when I was almost as in love with the army as I was with Nira,” Raffy recalls. Following his injury, he longs to resume a normal life which he later describes as follows: “eating, drinking, tax dodging, and a bit of cheating,” whereas it would never cross his mind to ever indulge in ‘a bit of cheating’ on his brothers in arms. It seems as if had Nira been part of the army which Raffy was clearly so hopelessly in love with, his world would have been thrown into absolute turmoil which is why there is such a clear-cut divide between the masculine experience and the spousal one.
We would have to wait until the millennium to finally have some films made by female directors who, at last, were properly tackling (even within the framework of a comedy) female soldiers’ lived experiences in military service. Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager’s Close to Home (2005) and Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation (2014) were most recently joined by TV series Dismissed (2021) (original title ‘madame officer’). The series was written and directed by Atara Frish (who shares writing credits with Nir Berger) and inspired by the creator’s real-life experiences from her time in the military. The three works boast a rich variety of female soldiers in a range of widely diverse roles, with each character fully fleshed out to the finest detail and not once defined in relation to their surrounding male soldier peers.