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The Uncivil Servant: Women in the IDF

Mitchell Abidor
November 29, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor Reviewed in this essay: Zero Motivation, a film by Talia Lavie zero-motivationTALIA LAVIE’S DELIGHTFUL FILM about life in the IDF, Zero Motivation, is a radical change from the films we usually see about Israel. The soldiers featured in this film are neither conscientious heroes nor rage-filled brutes. Lavie instead takes us to a base in Israel’s desert south and an administrative unit staffed entirely by women doing their two-year mandatory service. The enemy here is not the Palestinians, but boredom, each other, and paperwork. Their weapons are brooms and staple guns (which are at such a premium that they’re kept under lock and key and, in the film’s climactic scene, are literally used as weapons). The goal for most of these soldiers is to make it through the two years of service with the least effort possible — or, in the case of the commander of the unit, Rama (played by Shani Klein), to be promoted to officer and a permanent post in the army, while one of the film’s anti-heroes, Daffi (Nelly Tagar), seeks a transfer to the paradise of Tel Aviv. Nothing here of glory: the women spend their days showing up late, singing, slouching at their desks, listening to music. The only thing they know of war is the computer game Minesweeper, which they play obsessively. Spot inspections of their paperwork are described and treated by Rama as a battle, for which they must be ever ready. Daffi’s title is Paper and Shredding NCO. One post, that of Postal NCO, held by the film’s second anti-hero, the kibbutznik Zohar (Dana Igvy, who won an Israeli Academy Award for her performance) is finally eliminated when it’s realized that everything is done via email. IN THE DEAR, DEAD DAYS when Israel was still held up as a model for an egalitarian society, the fact that women served in the army was held up as proof. Women, though, never did and still don’t serve in combat units, so Israel has now been left behind by countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. When Zohar complains that she is to be left alone while on guard duty, a male officer tells her, “You wanted equal rights, you got ‘em.” Daffi’s Tel Aviv dream is far from feminist, featuring her walking across a sunny boulevard in fatigues and high heels. The women’s subaltern role is clear everywhere: The closest things to military crises in the film are when on two occasions the women have failed to prepare the required coffee and snacks for a morning officers’ meeting. And when the women do bring in the refreshments, the male officers gaze appreciatively at the women’s asses. Men, in general, are crude in Zero Motivation. When Zohar finally thinks she’s found the man to deflower her, she’s shocked by the brutality of his approach. Asking him to be gentle, he responds: “Go find a pencil pusher: I’m combat.” But it’s not only male-female relations that are brutal. There’s only one act of kindness and solidarity in the entire film: all the relationships in the film have an unpleasant edge to them. Lavie in no way made a socio-political tract, yet she gets in her digs at her compatriots. The Holocaust, for decades so central to Israel’s existence and educational system, is both not understood and misused: When the Russian immigrant Irena objects to Zohar’s suitor’s comparison of his basic training to the Shoah, Zohar snaps at her that “Russia wasn’t in the Holocaust.” And when Zohar tells Irena (who spends all her spare time reading Russian novels) that she’s “in the West now,” she has to be reminded by Irena that she was in the West when she was in Russia and no longer is. In making Zero Motivation, Talya Lavie says, she wanted to “use mandatory military service — a very local aspect of Israeli culture — as a platform to tell a universal coming-of-age story.” The story might be universal, but it’s Lavie’s wickedly clever use of the local aspect that makes Zero Motivation — which has won prizes around the world — the delight it is. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.