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Women in Arms

Israel's core institution is the army. And while the essential function of the army is to protect and defend the country's citizens, it also plays a crucial role in the lives of those who serve in its ranks. Not unlike an American university in this one respect, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the establishment within which young people build character, form social bonds, and start careers.

Relevant Links
Women in Combat?  Amos Harel, Haaretz. For the past decade, efforts have been made to integrate more women into combat units, but resistance remains strong.    

This is true of women as well as men. Israel is rare among nations in conscripting women into military service. While a significant number are exempted on religious grounds (and a smaller number for reasons of marriage, pregnancy, or children), for those who do serve, personal and career interests may be as much an issue as they are for men—as is, of course, answering the call of duty and honor.

But if women's ambitions may be equivalent to men's, their role in the IDF is not. To begin with, while men are obligated to serve for three years, women normally serve for two.  Also, by and large, women do not serve in combat units. According to some critics, these discrepancies mean that Israel's most ubiquitous and essential institution enshrines and perpetuates a corresponding imbalance when it comes to the distribution of leadership roles within Israeli society.

The IDF is sensitive to such criticisms.  In recent years it has worked at better integrating women soldiers and at creating opportunities for their advancement within the army itself—including through service in field operations and combat units. 

There is, however, a more radical critique of the status of women in the IDF—one whose aims reach far beyond the issues of equality of opportunity. To those advancing this critique, the main problem with the IDF is less that it perpetuates a social imbalance than that it reflects and perpetuates the fundamentally "militaristic character" of Israeli society. Rejecting the idea that Israel's many wars have been conflicts of necessity, imposed from without and unavoidable, these critics insist that, to the contrary, they have been freely chosen conflicts that serve the interests of "male hegemony." In the words of Orna Sasson-Levy, a professor of sociology at  Bar-Ilan University, Israel's "attachment to military solutions reinforce[s] the status of a portion of the men in Israeli society."

Nor are such opinions mere curiosities, a lone and ineffectual voice from the margins. Radical feminist organizations in Israel have often led the opposition to the country's military responses to Palestinian terror operations. One feminist group, New Profile, openly encourages young Israelis to refuse the draft and calls for soldiers already in the army to disobey orders. Still harder to believe is that, since the early years of this decade, some of the most ideologically radical feminists in Israel, including Sasson-Levy herself, have been employed at the heart of the IDF itself, advising the chief of staff on women's issues, preparing research for the upper echelon, and counseling senior officers.

The role played by radical feminists both within and outside the IDF was the hot topic at a recent conference in Tel Aviv. Raz Sagi, a colonel in the army reserves, charged the radicals with promoting draft-dodging, weakening the army's operational capacity by demanding lower standards for women advancing within the ranks, and undermining the institutional prestige of the IDF through political agitation. All three activities, Sagi asserted, were complementary elements in an endgame strategy aimed at critically weakening the role of Israel's military. 

To this, Sasson-Levy responded by deriding Sagi's evidence as impressionistic and ridiculing the notion of an organized conspiracy orchestrated by feminists like herself within the army's ranks. Seconding her, Sasson-Levy's Bar-Ilan colleague Stuart Cohen proposed that Sagi was the one subverting the IDF with his implicit suggestion that the top brass was guilty of collective stupidity.

But a better explanation than stupidity, if a no less dispiriting one, might be simple inattentiveness. As one woman instrumental in incorporating women into combat units was quoted as saying, "The general staff just couldn't keep track. We carried out a revolution right under their noses."

Whatever the explanation, one can only welcome the conclusion reached at the conference by Amira Dotan, the IDF's first female brigadier general: that, on women's issues, the IDF needs to begin paying immediate attention to a wider range of voices. And one can only hope that the "revolution" in question, marked by a deep contempt for Israel's struggles and a callousness in the face of its suffering, is curbed before real damage is inflicted on Israel's brave men and women in uniform.

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independent patriot on December 2, 2010 at 7:33 am (Reply)
Not to be difficult, but joining the IDF is nowhere near what happens in an American university. If you want to compare it to those young people in the US who join the armed services then I would agree. But the majority of children that enter college in the US exit as children. There is a huge difference to the national identity forged in the IDF and that ubiquitous 4 years of extended high school called college in the US.

Not allowing women into combat units is the same issue faced by women in the US armed services. They technically can't be a part of these units, but the units that they join end up placed in combat areas anyway. The problem becomes that they do not have the training needed to survive in these situations. It is time that both armies faced the reality that just because it doesn't say "combat" next to the unit does not mean that the women do not end up in harm's way. As far as equality and the lifelong benefits from being in such a unit, that honestly pales in comparison to the need to survive under fire. (Also ignore the radical feminists, a majority of women tend to find them laughable.)
Kenneth Besig on December 2, 2010 at 8:00 am (Reply)
As a Viet Nam and and IDF veteran, I totally oppose the enlistment of Israeli women into combat units. These girls are not physically capable of carrying the same weight for the same length of time as a male soldier, even small men, women soldiers tend to be far too argumentative and competitive particularly when time is of the essence and action is necessary. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Arab enemies of Israel do not respect their own women, and find Israel women even more distasteful. Thus in any combat situation an Arab soldier will never surrender to a woman or a combat unit with women in it. I won't even enter the topic of modesty in the field regarding bathing, latrines, or keeping tents and shelters clean. And then their is the medical treatment of female soldiers wounded in battle, the need to expose the wounds which almost always lead to removing all the wounded person's clothing. In its ridiculous need to seem multicultural, gender neutral, and gender equal by placing women soldiers in combat units, Israel is endangering even more our male soldiers who frankly are physically, emotionally, and mentally far more able to bear up under the stress and demands of combat than women.
Jennifer on December 2, 2010 at 10:50 am (Reply)
With all due respect, Mr. Besig, there is very little real-world data of military integration to show that your statement about women's attitudes and behavior on the battlefield is correct.
James Rogoff on December 2, 2010 at 10:54 am (Reply)
I think we owe it to ourselves to look at the matter straight and not make decisions based on knee-jerk feminist reactions that put lives in danger.
cephas on December 2, 2010 at 11:24 am (Reply)
Jennifer, if Kenneth is going in the right direction (and I would argue he brings up a few important considerations), we have to ask if we really want to risk the damage to the Army of such a social experiment in order to gather such data. Some things are better thought out first rather than experimented with. Do you need data that it's a bad idea to burn your hair off? Obviously not! Let's respect these soldiers and give then the best possible conditions for their mission without asking if we can complicate things for them needlessly. I'm all for experiments to improve conditions, but they must be carefully thought out.
Kenneth Besig on December 2, 2010 at 1:07 pm (Reply)
I have my own combat experience both in the US Army and the IDF to guide me regarding the doubtful effectiveness of women serving in combat units and this is what I base my opinions on. I have no problem with women soldiers serving in military support capacities and training. However, as a Jew, a man, and an Israeli, I am also totally opposed to this "politically correct" attempt to further defeminize, psychologically harden, and physically endanger our Jewish women by trying to turn them into combat soldiers. The IDF high command has for some time now been publicizing the fact that the IDF has more than enough male recruits to maintain our combat units at proper operational levels. Thus there is no necessity to have Jewish women serving in them, period.
David Star on December 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm (Reply)
I too as a veteran of the US Navy and the grandfather of 10 IDF combat soldiers feel more comfortable with my granddaughters not serving in the army.
Instead they have been doing National Service working with people young and old who have a broad variety of handicaps. Each has grown into truly caring and compassionate young women.
Having said that, I heartily applaud those young women who choose to serve in the military. From the time of the pre-state era women have carried weapons in combat and for self defense, and despite Ken Besig's fears, they have had a long record of top notch service.
The US armed forces has been sending women into combat roles since the mid 80's and the integration of these ladies into the military seems to have had usually positive results.
PS: I too served, not in the IDF,but as an armed uniformed Jerusalem policeman as part of a special volunteer unit of wartime veterans during the Intifada from 1992 to 2004.
Our family varies from Haredi to Hiloni
Leslie W. on December 2, 2010 at 5:57 pm (Reply)
I haven't served in combat for the U.S. military or IDF. In that instance my opinion will be solely that, not coming from hands on experience. However I did come into contact with women who served. Just coming from Iraq in 2004 a young woman took the same writing class I was in. Her self-esteem seemed brutalized. She couldn't feel beyond fear. The promise of a wonderful career and college education seemed non-existent since her concentration was so deluded in war that she couldn't think beyond that. She experienced sexual abuse from fellow American soldiers. Her experience with the enemy was even harder because of gender plus lack of training and not being able to keep up with the guys. In that instance alone I have to agree with Kenneth and the women who believe that the continuing war is a product of "male hegemony." No war is Holy.
cephas on December 2, 2010 at 8:58 pm (Reply)
Leslie, thank you for your testimony. I believe it is as you say, and that we have more than sufficient witness of the deep harm war causes women. Our society is like a young child denying they're tired when any adult can see they're exhausted. Denial.
Baruch on December 3, 2010 at 5:05 am (Reply)
You're all getting your knickers in a twist without addressing the real subject: The proven value of women to the IDF where they represent about a third of all serving personnel. The IDF could not do without them and they do a great job as the backbone of non-combat specialties.
Only about two pct. of women in the IDF serve in tasks which can possibly bring them into combat and none serve in front-line combat units.
The girls who serve in the Caracal light infantry battalion serve as area security troops, thereby freeing male soldiers to serve in classic assault infantry units. The girls who serve in the Border Police (and who run the same risks as their male counterparts) play an immensely important role vis-a-vis the Palestinian women who they pat down or question when necessary, thereby preventing what would be daily ugly confrontations with civilians if men were involved.
And so on and so forth. Women are used instead of men as ground radar operators helping prevent infiltrations on the Lebanese and Gaza borders because their attention span, patience and alterness is greater than that of men.
Women make up half the logistics officers graduated each year from Bahad Ehad, the IDF officer training course, and more than half of the officers graduated in admin tasks.
So whether women can fight or carry or mortar base plates as far as men is not a serious subject - but some of the girls at Caracal can certainly can do so as their predecessors in the Palmach proved at the cost of their lives.

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