Women In The Israeli Defense Forces: Separating Myth From Reality

Israeli women serve in Israel’s armed forces with distinction and their contribution is critical to the IDF’s mission. What they don’t do is serve in roles where they would need to close with the enemy and kill or be killed.

From the IDF spokesperson: Seen here is a woman who is part of the first group of female combat soldiers in the Nachshol Platoon, a field intelligence unit. Capt. Shirli Galez, then-head of the unit, said “this is a field unit like all others, they must be fully prepared to go out into the field in order to gather intelligence. The platoon proves that women can fully operate as combat soldiers.”
Copyright: Israel Defense Forces [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF, developed organically from the armed militias that prior to the declaration of independence in 1948 were organized separately by the majority socialist Labor movement and the minority and more nationalist “Revisionist” or “Liberty” movement. Upon assuming the office of the prime minister on the first day of independence on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion moved to outlaw these militias and transfer all military authority to the newly constituted IDF. While this was a tough decision because many fine warriors and especially commanders from the more right wing militias were excluded, it prevented a possible civil war and allowed Israel to win the War of Independence, mostly by being better organized and better led than its Arab enemies.

From its earliest days, the IDF needed every able-bodied man and woman to join its ranks and so a universal draft was constituted. With slight variations over the years, boys served mandatory terms of three years and girls of two, both enlisting immediately after high school at the age of 18. This is still the situation today. The presence of women in the military was not without problems both in terms of socialization and in terms of the roles that they were asked to perform. The War of Independence, which was a war for survival and in which a staggering ten thousand Israelis were killed in action out of a population of only six hundred thousand, was the last war in which women fought on the front lines and lost their lives directly to enemy fire.

Following the victory in that war, the IDF developed a highly aggressive macho culture in which daring and bravery bordering on recklessness were emphasized above all else. Legendary paratroopers and commandos like the later to become prime minister Ariel Sharon were lionized for their daring-do, their nighttime raids on Arab villages across the porous borders from which Arabs sneaked into Israel to harass Israeli farmers and steal agricultural equipment. These raids, often deep into Jordanian territory, were marked by their brutality and efficacy. Israeli troops, all men, of course, would cross the border and attack under the element of surprise, inflicting the maximum possible number of casualties in the short period of time before the Jordanian military could come to the villagers rescue.

The macho warrior culture in the 1950’s and 1960’s led to rampant problems between men and women in the IDF. This stemmed from the fact that while most female soldiers served in clerical and support roles in the cities where they went home every night, many served in sometimes remote forward bases where officers often selected the best looking girls and often made advances, some welcomed and some not. Welcomed or not, refusing a warrior who routinely put his life on the line for Israel’s defense was not really possible, and so the concept of the “company mattress” was born. Pretty women serving in clerical and troop support roles in infantry, artillery, and armor bases were often suspected of sleeping with the officer cadre and the more experienced enlisted men as well. Gossip was rampant and this socialization became a festering problem that wouldn’t be resolved for many decades.

As Israel grew by leaps and bounds and the IDF with it, more and more roles were found for women. The biggest growth happened in technologically rich environments. Combat air traffic control, remote piloting, cyber warfare, surveillance equipment operation, all became places were women were in the majority. A note was made of female excellence in instructional roles, especially when the trainees were men. This led to a opportunities in fitness instruction, infantry instruction, artillery instruction, and armored corps instruction to be open to women. However, these women never left the large training bases and deployed with the troops to exercises, peacetime border patrol, or wartime operations.

The IDF distinguishes between combat and non-combat roles for its personnel, a distinction that manifests itself in the red background that combat soldiers and officers wear behind their insignia, the issuance of a personal firearm that the soldiers always carry with them, and higher pay. However, the definition of “combat” is rather broad. Crews that operate anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses such as the Iron Dome and Patriot missile systems are considered combat soldiers, as are those battalions whose role is more paramilitary than military and that keep the peace in areas, such as Judea and Samaria, where there is a high chance of friction between the Jewish and the Arab populations.

This definition of “combat” has resulted in many, though still a minority, of women in the IDF wearing the insignia of combat soldiers and the iconic image of IDF female soldiers walking through Israeli cities with their personal firearms. Today, after some painful and career ending “metoo” style events in the early 2000’s the abuse of power for sexual favors in the IDF has significantly subsided. A few women have become fighter pilots and we now have the first ever female commander of a gunboat. About 75% of all men enlist in the IDF, but only 50% of women, due to the easier allowances made to women for religious objections and because married women are never enlisted, removing from the pool many religious girls who marry at a young age.

To the simple question: do Israeli female soldiers serve in combat roles, the answer is yes, but this answer can be misleading. If by “combat” we imply ground forces comprising of infantry, artillery, tank, and battle engineer battalions, the answer flips to no. Israeli women do not crew tanks or artillery pieces. They are not expected to close the range to the enemy and kill him as infantry soldiers do. The presence of women in the tightly knit, four to ten person units, be they tank crews or infantry companies, which actually do the fighting has always been and still is considered a disruption and a detriment to combat readiness, a detriment that Israel cannot afford. There are not many roles today that women are barred from in the IDF, but serving in the ground forces as enlisted personnel or officer corps is one of them. None of Israel’s vaunted commando units admit female personnel other than in clerical and support roles. The command staff of the IDF is nearly 100% male because it is drawn entirely from officers who started their careers as enlisted men in the ground combat forces and advanced through the ranks, personally taking role in raids and battles with the enemy.

It is particularly annoying to hear social justice warriors in America, none of whom has ever carried a weapon to war or experienced being shot at by the enemy, using the IDF and its supposed acceptance of women in combat roles as a shield against well-founded concerns that the American military is made weaker by putting “diversity” and other social engineering goals ahead of efficient war-fighting and emerging victorious from every mission. These couch “analysts” know nothing of Israeli society, which is still highly patriarchal, with enthusiastic support by most women. Israel dotes over its women and its children. Young people, male and female, can’t wait to get married and start families with at least three kids. While the contribution of women to Israel’s defense is both immense and critical, the idea of mixed-gender tank crews or female casualties on the battlefield is utterly unthinkable.

Alas, Israel, ever in the midst of a propaganda war that is no less important than its many shooting wars, has taken to using its female soldiers, especially those in quasi-combat roles in intelligence or peacekeeping in civilian areas to promote its image in the US and in Western Europe as an equality-driven society and perhaps even mask its true nature as a rather traditional one. That is a shame, because Israel is already a leader in the smart integration of female personnel in its military and security forces and can provide a real example to other Western nations how a commonsensical approach can maximize the use of resources while enhancing combat readiness.

Every day, Israeli women soldiers and officers take up arms and serve their country with honor and distinction, many in highly volatile and dangerous areas. They guard the peace in East Jerusalem, they operate complex weapons systems, they train the next generation of men whose role is to kill the enemy from a distance and from point-blank range alike. But once their service is done, they go home where they study to be engineers, doctors, and lawyers, they get married and have children. The IDF, which relies on its reserves to fight even limited engagements, reserves in which women almost never serve, is a fighting force that is substantially male, a fighting force in which personal bravery, camaraderie, and dedication to achieving victory at all costs still rule the day, simply because they have to.

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