During a briefing with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot last month, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the right-wing Jewish Home party asked the general why the army’s spokesperson is “always pushing articles in the media about the integration of women and homosexuals in the army? What’s it good for?”
The question reflected a deep unease among some in the national religious community over the growing integration of women into the army, especially in mixed-gender combat battalions. Reactions have ranged from technical questions such as resource management and physical capability to some extremist rabbis blanching at the idea of women “debasing” themselves with military service.
This came to a head most recently when, over the weekend, the air force removed a video from its Facebook page that had been prepared for last Thursday’s International Women’s Day in response to pushback from members of the national religious community. In the video, airwomen describe the myriad ways people say women shouldn’t serve in the military, ending with a female pilot shrugging, noting “so they say…,” before climbing into an F-16 fighter jet.
In the Jordan Valley, where one co-ed battalion trains and operates, the pushback is just as insignificant to the men and women with boots on the ground.
“There are a lot of people who don’t believe in these [mixed-gender] units. People who don’t think they’re justified. It’s important that people see pictures of the soldiers… that they should know that behind all the rumors and opposition there are soldiers that are carrying out a mission, a sacred mission: Defending the people of Israel, defending the State of Israel,” said Cpt. Barkan Dahan, a company commander of the Lions of the Jordan battalion. (To be clear, her comments were not directed at Ariel specifically.)
Dahan, 24, commands one of the four companies that make up the Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion, a unit staffed by men and women — about one-third and two-thirds, respectively — that since its formation in 2015 has been tasked with defending the northern Jordan Valley, a portion of the West Bank that abuts the Jordanian border.
“It’s a beautiful area, but it’s also complicated in terms of security because it includes the border with Jordan — with whom we have peace, but it’s still a border that needs to be guarded — and it also includes a Palestinian population,” she said.
The Times of Israel joined the Lions of the Jordan Valley for an urban combat exercise in the Tze’elim base in the Negev desert last month, as they simulated fighting from house to house in a mock Arab village. They scaled walls, breached doors and stood on one another’s shoulders to get better vantage points for their machine guns.
“It’s important to prove that there’s no difference between guys and girls,” said Gil Doron, a machine-gunner in the Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion, who immigrated to Israel with her family from South Africa.
Here, there are girls; there, there are no girls
Though women have served in combat positions in Israel since before the founding of the state, the issue remains one of the most sensitive in Israeli society.
Some rail against opening combat roles to women, saying they are physiologically incapable of performing them. Many rabbis in the national religious community warn that men and women serving together in combat positions is a recipe for inappropriate fraternization.
On the other side, many argue that it’s an important step toward equality between men and women.
Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces maintains that it does not operate based on a pro- or anti-feminist agenda, but seeks to address the country’s security concerns, and if that means giving female soldiers M-16 assault rifles and sending them to patrol a border — so be it.
The commander of the Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion, Lt. Col. Rami Mizrahi, sees no real distinction between his current co-ed unit and the former all-male ones in which he once served — besides the obvious one.
“Here, there are girls, and there, there are no girls,” he said, with a laugh, when asked about the differences between the units.
Dahan agreed, noting the only minor difference is that she has to work harder to get her unit to come together as a group as they spend less time together socially since they sleep in separate quarters.
“My difficulties are the same as those of a company commander in the Golani Brigade: Taking care of the soldiers, getting them ready to send them to courses, making sure they get home safely, making sure everything gets taken care of,” she said.
Mizrahi said the political and social discourse over female combat soldiers makes little to no practical difference to his unit’s day-to-day operations and was of no interest to him personally.
“When there’s an article that pops up on a news site about the issue, I just swipe it away and it disappears. With smartphones, it’s very easy,” he said, wryly.
“The conversations have no real connection to the reality. The men and women, together, are equal. They are highly professional, highly aggressive. We train them for it. This-or-that journalist or this-or-that rabbi can come down here and see what the troops are doing in the field,” the battalion commander said.
Both Mizrahi and Dahan said that the residents of the northern Jordan Valley pestered them about coming back to the area, after they left to perform a few weeks of training exercises.
“When we’re out of the area, they always ask us, ‘When are you coming back? When are you coming back?’ It’s nice to hear,” Dahan said.
Mizrahi noted that many of those people are religious Jews, who are apparently unfazed by the comments of leading rabbis against women serving in the IDF.
Before taking over as head of the Lions, Mizrahi held positions in all-male combat units, first in the Nahal Brigade and later in the elite Duvdevan unit.
“I got the Lions because I wanted to, with all its complexities,” he said. “And I’m very happy that they gave me the opportunity to command a unit like this.”
The distinctions that do exist between all-male and mixed-gender units, he said, are “not in the units’ abilities, but in their purpose.”
The Nahal Brigade, for instance, is a “maneuvering” unit, in the parlance of the army, one that crosses borders in war-time and takes part in ground campaigns, whereas the Lions of the Jordan and the other co-ed battalions are were designed to be stationary, guarding units, Mizrahi said.
“But the [Lions] battalion is aggressive, ready to fight, professional, it takes initiative and is ready to make contact,” he said.
“There are female soldiers here who are stronger and tougher than the male soldiers. It’s not fun for me to say, but some of them are even stronger than I am. Seriously,” he said.
“I’m not just talking about them having ‘poison in their eyes'” — Israeli slang for intense motivation — “I’m talking about physical abilities,” Mizrahi added.
For instance, Doron, the machine-gunner, said she got her position since she was “the strongest one in my team.” (Her Negev machine gun weighs more than twice as much as an M-16 assault rifle, without even taking into account the additional ammunition and extra barrel.)
“We did a lot of exercises and saw who was better at what. I was the strongest and the fastest,” she said.
Following in her sister’s footsteps
One of the main driving forces behind such units’ creation was that they could be stationed in quieter areas — Caracal along the Egyptian border; Bardelas in the Arava desert; Lions of the Jordan Valley in the northern Jordan Valley; and Lavi in the southern Jordan Valley — in order to free up the more advanced “maneuvering” infantry brigades for additional training or other necessary activities.
Dahan, from the northern Israeli town of Migdal Ha’Emek, put it more simply: “Someone sat there at the political level and at the highest echelons of the army and decided that there needs to be a force like this, someone to perform this mission. And we’re the people who perform this mission. And we do it with love.”
The first co-ed battalion, Caracal, was formed in 2001 and it remained the only one until 2014 when the Lions of the Jordan Valley was formed, followed quickly by Bardelas in 2015 and Lavi in 2016.
Dahan’s older sister was one of the “founders of Caracal, one of the people who sat around a campfire and picked the name,” she said. (Male and female Caracal cats were thought to have minimal differences between them, though this is not actually true.)
“When I was a little girl at home, I had the experience of having a sister come home with a gun and a mother being worried. Even after she was discharged, it was always something we talked about,” Dahan said.
When it was her turn to join the army, Caracal was still the only co-ed battalion and so that’s where she went.
“Building a new mixed-gender battalion from the ground up was thought of as just some insane scenario that probably couldn’t happen. But as the years go by, these things are happening and they’re happening relatively quickly,” Dahan said.
Over the past five years, the number of female combat soldiers in the IDF has exploded, increasing five-fold as the new combat battalions were opened and additional positions in combat intelligence and artillery opened up.
Building a new mixed-gender battalion from the ground up was thought of as just some insane scenario that probably couldn’t happen. But as the years go by, these things are happening and they’re happening relatively quickly
In 2017, the army saw a record-high 2,700 women joining combat units, compared to 547 in 2012. Yet the number of female combat officers remains relatively low.
“There’s still a gap, negatively, of female combat officers, but there are more than there used to be,” Dahan said. “And I’m glad that the incoming female combat soldiers are starting to aspire to do it.”