Memorial Day

Fighting and dying alongside men for decades, female soldiers finally get their due

Women Warriors site gathers stories and info about female troops killed in line of duty, as group hopes to memorialize fallen and inspire more integration in combat roles

Female IDF combat soldier (Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Female IDF combat soldier (Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

While preparing materials for Memorial Day in 2023, Ofra Ash searched the internet for a simple piece of data: How many female members of Israel’s security forces have been killed in the line of duty since the state’s founding?

She could not find it. The Defense Ministry’s Izkor website, which contains memorials for the 25,040 soldiers and others who have died defending Israel and the pre-state Jewish Yishuv, could not answer Ash’s basic query.

As a woman of action and the head of a nonprofit, Forum Dvorah, that advocates for women’s participation in Israel’s security forces, Ash decided to fill the knowledge gap herself, developing the concept for a database called Women Warriors to tell the stories of Israel’s fallen female fighters.

“It was important for us to include everyone’s personal story. Not just rank, unit, when she died and what happened when she died,” Ash told The Times of Israel on Friday. “[We want] to tell the personal story of all those fallen soldiers.”

By the time Ash and her team were ready to begin work on creating a user-friendly, informative database and biographical repository, the Israel-Hamas war had broken out.

Female soldiers played key roles during the Hamas terror group’s October 7 assault on southern Israel. Among the female soldiers who battled the massive onslaught of invading terrorists was an all-female tank unit that fought for hours, killing dozens of attackers along the border and in communities overrun by terrorists. Female soldiers were also among those killed by Hamas and among those taken hostage alongside their male counterparts.

Forum Dvorah CEO Ofra Ash (Courtesy)

According to Women Warriors, 47 female IDF soldiers were killed on October 7, and five more have been killed in the line of duty near Gaza, on the northern border and in the West Bank in the months since.

In April, the Israel Defense Forces said it had seen a massive spike in female conscripts joining combat units during the war. During the March-April conscription cohort, the turnout for female troops in combat units hit 157 percent, meaning 57% more than planned for.

During the same period last year, turnout was 102 percent, according to the military.

While women have been part of Israel’s military from its earliest days, it is only in recent decades that many combat opportunities have been opened up to female soldiers, from infantry units to tank crews to fighter pilot squadrons. Some of the progress has come at the army’s initiative, and sometimes at the behest of courts, or in response to public pressure.

“This heroism [by female soldiers] did not begin in this latest campaign,” said Col. (res.) Maya Heller, chairperson of Forum Dvorah’s executive committee. “The stories of those [women] who fell in the line of duty protecting Israel are intertwined with the story of the land itself and the establishment of the state they defended and loved.”

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security. Proponents point to advances in gender-equality in other aspects of life and note that other Western militaries have successful integrated female troops into their fighting forces.

Women in IDF combat positions (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In 2015, Forum Dvorah was created to actively champion women’s participation in national security and foreign policy decision-making.

“People think we are asking them to lower the bar [for entry] in combat positions,” Ash explained. “We are not asking for that. We are asking for women to be allowed to apply and try to get in.”

With the Women Warriors website, Forum Dvorah hopes both to memorialize the fallen and to inspire new soldiers or change old attitudes by publicizing women’s contributions to IDF combat operations.

Ash hopes that the site will be a resource for the general public and a tool for educators and students, particularly as the State of Israel marks its first Memorial Day since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, in which over 600 soldiers have been killed to date.

The website currently contains detailed information on each of the 52 women who were killed in the line of duty during the current war. Ash and her team plan to continue adding the stories of female soldiers, working backward chronologically.

“When you go into any of these stories, you can really picture [each woman],” Ash said. “You can understand who she was. It lists her parent’s names, her sibling’s names, and sometimes her grandparents. You know if she was a middle child or the oldest. You know what she loved and her motivation for her military service. And if there was a certain food she really liked.”

Women in IDF combat positions (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In addition to the stories of those killed, the Women Warriors website has a page dedicated to stories of female soldiers who survived harrowing ordeals while undertaking  heroic actions.

More than two dozen are currently listed, each telling the story of a woman who saved others under unimaginable conditions. Some, like Border Police officer Shifra Buchris, a mother of 10 who spent 12 hours rescuing Nova festival attendees, are already well known. Others, like Keren Meir (Hebrew link), who held down the fort at the Kissufim military base while her friends and colleagues lay bleeding out on the floor, have gotten less media coverage.

“We have always believed in women, their ability to fight, and their ability to be combat commanders,” Ash said. “And it is unfortunate that we needed a war to prove this, for everyone to see.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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