The changing role of women in the Israeli military. The place of women in Israel’s armed forces has changed substantially since 1948. Although women always performed a critical role in the Israeli military, few of these soldiers resembled the Hollywood stereotype of machine gun—armed beauty queens.
In the decades before Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, women served in many of the semiofficial and underground organizations that protected the growing Jewish community in Palestine including Hashomer, Hagana, Irgun, and Palmach. Other women stood guard duty at kibbutzim and isolated communities. Women remained a minority in these military units and generally served in noncom-bat positions. Only the Palmach, which had a socialist and egalitarian ethos, included a significant number of female fighters and even a few female officers. Several Jewish women died in combat in the increasingly violent years before Israeli statehood. It is likely that the first two Jewish women to die in combat in Palestine did so in 1920 while defending the settlement of Tel Hai. Eight male members of Hashomer died fighting alongside them.
More than 12,000 women served in military units in Israel’s War of Independence (1947— 1949), and 114 of them died in combat, representing 2.8 percent of Jewish combat fatalities (Gal 1986, 46). Many distinguished themselves, among them Netiva Ben Yehuda, a Palmach fighter who earned a reputation among Arabs as the Blonde Devil for her deadly accuracy as a sniper. Despite the soldiers’ generally good combat performance, Jewish leaders began pulling women out of combat positions in mid-1948 after Arab soldiers raped, mutilated, and murdered a captured Hagana woman. By the end of the war, only a handful of women remained in combat positions. Most served in rear areas performing administrative or technical duties.
After the war, Israel reorganized its various military organizations into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The government established universal conscription for Israel’s Jewish citizens, and Israel remains the only nation to conscript women. The length of mandatory service has varied over time depending on the nation’s security situation. Generally, men served for about 3 years and women for 21 months, although married women, women with children, and those from observant Orthodox families received draft exemptions, as have women from the Druze community and other minority communities that agreed to conscription. Women who qualified and volunteered to become officers served an additional 9 months. After their mandatory term of service, both men and women serve in the reserves, but women’s reserve commitment ends with their first pregnancy or at age 34 (changed to 38 in 2001). Because of these exemptions and because for most of its history the IDF did not conscript all women (because of the limited number of positions in which they were allowed to serve), only about 60 percent of Israeli women served in the military compared with 90 percent of men. Following legal changes in the 1990s, the percentage of women serving rose to 70 percent (Gal 1986, 32; van Creveld 1998, 263). Surveys continue to show that even without conscription, the majority of these women would volunteer for military service.
The fear of losing women in combat combined with pressure from Israel’s religious political parties and immigrants from Arab nations, who generally retained a traditional view of women’s place in society, led the government to systematically restrict women from combat and near-combat positions. In the 1950s, the IDF assigned many women as teachers to help new immigrants learn Hebrew and adjust to life in Israel. An effort to train women as pilots ended before the 1956 war. Nonetheless, a female pilot flew one of the planes that dropped paratroopers over the Mitla Pass in the 1956 war, and other women served close to the front lines. By the early 1960s, however, women only served in rear areas. Occasional efforts to restore them to flight or near-combat duties failed.
Until 2001, women served in the IDF as part of the Women’s Corps (Chel Nashim), the Hebrew abbreviation for which (Chen) translates roughly as charm or grace. Chen trained women and men in separate camps. After training, the IDF assigned them to various military units. These women functioned normally within the military chain of command, but each battalion or similarly sized military unit had a Chen officer who oversaw the accommodation and treatment of the women in that unit. This dual chain of command further isolated women from the predominantly male army. With only limited opportunities for advancement, few women attained the rank of colonel.
Historically, women accounted for about 10 percent of Israel’s active duty forces, and virtually all units, including elite airborne and other specialized combat units, contained some women, usually in clerical or medical positions (Gal 1986, 48—49). A unique Israeli position for female soldiers is the company clerk, a special aide who assists the commander with administrative tasks but who also helps raise troop morale by arranging social activities and even baking cookies for the soldiers. In many ways, the company clerks function as surrogate mothers for the young soldiers. Commanders expect them to add homey touches to military life. While restricting women from combat, the IDF steadily opened new military specializations to women, particularly after the 1973 war when it began assigning women as arms, artillery, and tank instructors. In addition to medical specialties, many women worked in communications, intelligence, radar, air traffic control, computers, and electronics, but almost half of them still served as clerks and secretaries.
The IDF’s policy in the 1960s and 1970s was to evacuate women from the front lines before combat began, but this sometimes proved impossible. Three women died in the surprise Arab attacks that began the 1973 war. The IDF prohibited women from entering Lebanon during the first two months of Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation. Afterward, the women joined their units in the field, but for several years, the high command expected them to return to Israel each night. Despite their exclusion from combat service in the IDF, the government allowed women to perform their mandatory military service in paramilitary forces such as the Chiba auxiliary police unit that assists police in security and counterterrorism patrols. Other women chose to serve in the Border Police (MaGav), another well-armed paramilitary force that offered more opportunities for women. The MaGav remains more integrated and egalitarian than the IDF, with numerous coed platoons, and a few platoons composed almost entirely of women. Armed with M-16s, machine guns, and light mortars, MaGav units have proved of critical importance in protecting Jewish neighborhoods and responding to suicide attacks. MaGav instruction is completely coed, and women serve as snipers and in elite units without any gender restriction.
Many Israeli women resented their second-class status in the military, especially because military service in Israel is highly regarded and often a path for upward mobility. Their efforts steadily forced open more occupational specialties to women, and in the 1990s, several lawsuits opened the door even further to full female participation in the military. In 1995, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the IDF had to allow Alice Miller, an immigrant from South Africa with a pilot’s license, to apply for pilot training in the Israeli Air Force. Although Miller failed the entrance exam, other women have graduated from flight school. Further legal challenges opened up other positions for women. On January 10, 2000, Israel’s parliament amended the military service law to give women equal access to all military positions unless the nature of the job specifically prevents their service. If they wish to serve in combat units, women must serve the same three-year initial term of service as men do and accept an obligation in the reserves through the age of forty-three. Many women have chosen to do so. By the end of 2001, women held combat positions in artillery, air defense, combat engineers, several border patrol units, and in the air force as both fixed-wing and helicopter pilots.
Following the onset of the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, the IDF began assigning female soldiers to guard Jewish communities. One of them, Corporal Keren Ya’akobi, died in combat guarding a Jewish settlement near Hebron on December 12, 2002. Recently, Israel created coed combat units, most notably the Karakal (Hebrew for "wildcat") Brigade. Women outnumber men in several of the Karakal’s companies. This unit patrols the Jordanian border to prevent drug smuggling and terrorist infiltration and has distinguished itself in several small skirmishes. The IDF continues to open new positions to women and current plans include expanding options for women in the reserves.