New combat positions for women in the IDF, same old obstacles
As the army makes strides in increasing gender equality, both physiological and cultural barriers keep female officers from the General Staff
As more and more combat positions open up to women in the IDF, some roles will remain off-limits to the fairer sex — most of which are jobs that lead to the upper echelons of the army.
The Israel Defense Forces now has three mixed-gender combat battalions — Caracal, Lions of the Jordan and Cheetah (known in Hebrew as “Bardelas”). Female soldiers serve in field intelligence units. They “man” air defense installations and operate devastating artillery systems.
Women have gone into Gaza and West Bank cities. Female pilots have flown over enemy countries. If a war should again break out in Lebanon, female Israeli soldiers would go there too.
But there will probably never be a female commander of the storied Paratroopers Brigade or the roughneck Golani Brigade.
In the pre-state Haganah and in the IDF during the War of Independence, women served in a variety of combat roles, as the fledgling State of Israel needed all the fighters it could muster.
(Trivia buffs may know that famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer served as a sniper in the Haganah before she was seriously wounded by an artillery shell.)
But following the War of Independence, women were quickly shoved out of those combat roles and pushed into secretarial and other administrative positions, Lt. Col. Limor Shavtai told The Times of Israel.
Shavtai serves as the deputy gender affairs adviser to the chief of staff — the position known as the women’s affairs adviser to the chief of staff until February 2016.
Now female draftees are again being asked to pick up rifles and machine guns — and for the same reason as before: desperation.
“We don’t have much of a choice,” Shavtai said.
As army service for men was shortened from a full three years to two years and eight months, “there is now a gap,” she explained.
“That has forced the army to be more open in its thought process, more pluralistic, in order to think about what other positions can be opened up to women. Many of the obstacles are societal — they are cultural obstacles, not obstacles in terms of the woman’s ability,” added Shavtai.
“We don’t have any other choice,” she repeated.
Though the IDF is acting out of a need to fill these combat roles, the young women who serve in those positions are doing so out of an earnest desire to protect their country.
The most common reason given by these teenage women for why they want to join combat units is that they “want to have a meaningful service.”
In 2016, the United States military opened up all of its combat positions to women. As long as candidates passed the required physical examinations, they could serve in whatever unit they pleased. But the same phenomenon won’t happen in the Israeli army in the foreseeable future, according to Shavtai.
While female soldiers are filling more combat roles, there will still be a limit on what those positions can be, specifically as it relates to service in the IDF’s infantry brigades.
And those restrictions, along with other factors, prevent women from reaching the highest ranks of the IDF for the time being.
‘A meaningful service’
Despite the challenges and obstacles facing them, the desire and determination of female recruits is impressive, Shavtai said.
Unlike their male counterparts, who can be drafted into infantry units whether they like it or not, female recruits have to volunteer for combat positions. To boot, they have to agree to extend their mandatory service from two years to almost three.
And they have. The number of women requesting to serve in combat units has steadily increased since 2000.
In 1995, Israel’s Supreme Court accepted Alice Miller’s petition to try out for Israeli Air Force’s elite pilots course, which had been off-limits to women following the War of Independence.
Although Miller did not get accepted into the course, her court case paved the way for additional legislation to allow women into combat positions.
In 2000, Israel added section 16A to its Security Service Law, which stated: “Every woman of military age has the same right as a man of military age to serve in every position in military service.”
Today, approximately 92 percent of the positions in the IDF are open to female soldiers, and many young women are rushing to fill those roles.
‘This was service that spoke to her. She wanted to be stimulated’
“It’s challenging and the most meaningful way to serve,” said Yael Elbaz, who was drafted into a coed combat battalion last year.
Some parents of the young women were nervous about sending their daughters off to potentially dangerous positions in the army, but most supported the decision.
“This was service that spoke to her. She wanted to be stimulated,” said Mark and Linda Barda, Australian immigrants to Israel whose daughter, Noa, joined the Lions of the Jordan Battalion.
“But we did encourage her to look at other options as well,” the parents added.
Body mass index
Though more women are serving in combat roles, positions in infantry and armored brigades have been deemed too physically demanding for female soldiers.
The equipment they have to be able to carry is too heavy, the distances the soldiers have to be able to travel are too far. At least this is what the IDF’s Medical Corps and the army’s gender affairs adviser to the chief of staff have determined.
These are not decisions based on women’s intellect, determination, or desire to serve. They are based on simple equations of body mass, muscle type, bone density and other physiological attributes, Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Yuval Heled, head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel.
“You need to be at this weight; you need to be able to run such and such a distance at a specific speed; you need to be able to evacuate a wounded soldier to such and such a distance; your muscle power needs to be that,” he explained.
Female soldiers have been shown time and again to excel in a variety of military and combat fields, including marksmanship and team building, but carrying a stretcher with an injured soldier on it 50 kilometers (30 miles) is not one of them.
“Physiologically, a woman is not necessarily suited for every position that a man is,” Shavtai said.
“We’re not prepared to open every position no matter the cost,” she added.
As it is, female combat soldiers suffer from stress fractures and other injuries at a dramatically higher rate than their male counterparts. In the IDF’s mixed-gender Caracal Battalion, 40 percent of the female soldiers had some kind of injury, and in the Artillery Corps, that number was close to 70%, the IDF revealed this summer in the army’s Bamahane magazine. Female soldiers suffered about twice as many injuries as the male soldiers in the same units did.
“The balance here is between, on the one hand, allowing women to serve in the best combat positions that exist, while on the other, fulfilling our primary duty, which is protecting the health of that human being,” explained Dr. Heled.
As such, the IDF is working to better prepare its female recruits for the physical tasks that await them in the army, giving them nutritional and fitness advice before they begin their service, Heled said.
However, some of those efforts to find only the most physically fit and suitable candidates are limited by budgetary and manpower restrictions, Shavtai said.
“Equality costs money,” Shavtai said simply.
While they are in the army, the IDF has begun providing female combat soldiers with lighter, better-fitting equipment — like helmets and bulletproof vests — that both better protect them and prevent some of the bone and joint stress injuries that plague female soldiers.
“You know what happens?” Shavtai asked rhetorically.
“When there are extras, the male combat soldiers ask for them. Because they are better than their old vests, they argue over who gets them,” she said with a laugh.
But the amount of specialized equipment the IDF can provide to female soldiers is limited by its expense.
In recent years, added Heled — who was involved in the research — the IDF has also reevaluated what exactly the fitness requirements for each unit are, in order to determine if women could serve in those positions.
“In 2008 or 2009 we started taking a list of professions — combat soldier, tank operator, infantry soldier, etc. — and we were asked to give a professional opinion on if it is possible [to integrate women],” Heled said.
‘Anyone who can stand up to those criteria, can be a Golani soldier. The reality is that we don’t have any female combat soldiers in Golani’
“We took each of the professions and we did an analysis for each of the positions. None of them disqualified women, none of them. What it said was this: Here’s the criteria, not for a female combat soldier, but for any combat soldier in Golani, the requirements are X, Y, Z,” Heled said, using the Golani Infantry Brigade as an example.
While some of those positions were opened up to women, in light of those findings, others could not be.
“We gave them all the criteria. And anyone who can stand up to those criteria, can be a Golani soldier. The reality is that we don’t have any female combat soldiers in Golani. Maybe in the future there will be, but they’ll need to fulfill those criteria,” Heled said.
That a woman may never serve in — or lead — the Golani Brigade may seem insignificant, but those infantry and armored brigades are almost always the starting points of IDF generals’ careers.
This is a man’s army
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, his deputy, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, and almost every other member of the General Staff have at one time or another served as commanders of an infantry or armored brigade.
There are notable exceptions — including generals who have come from the air force or navy — but the path to the general staff almost always includes a stop at one of seven brigades — Paratroopers, Golani, Givati, Nahal, 188th Armored, 7th Armored or 401st Armored. (The IDF’s other infantry brigade, Kfir, was only officially formed in 2005 and thus does not yet have a general who wears its camouflage beret.)
Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, never served as an infantry brigade commander. And in 2011, Orna Barbivai was named Israel’s first female major general, leading the army’s Human Resources Directorate until 2015, without having led a combat brigade.
But these are the exceptions.
Speaking at a Women’s International Zionist Organization event in January, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pointed out this obstacle to the promotion of women within the military.
Asked if a woman could one day become Israel’s defense minister, Ya’alon responded: “Why not? A more difficult question is whether I can foresee a woman as chief of the General Staff.
“In our case, with our challenges, it’s not just tradition that the chief of the General Staff came from the ranks of combat roles.”
Though over 90% of positions are available to women, the remaining 8% present a serious impasse for the advancement of women in the Israel Defense Forces, as those combat positions are specifically the ones that lead to the army’s higher ranks.
Though there are relatively high numbers of female junior officers — approximately 40% of first and second lieutenants are women — as the ranks get higher, the percentage of females decreases.
As of last year, only 14% of lieutenant colonels in the Israeli army are women, and there are just four female brigadier generals, according to the IDF.
The number of female officers is rising and the IDF is putting more effort into encouraging talented women to remain in the army through a variety of programs, Shavtai said.
But the disparity between the number of male and female high-ranking officers will remain for years to come.
Advances, setbacks, new questions
In the 21 years since the Alice Miller trial, there have been dozens of female pilots. And in November 2014, Cpt. Or Cohen became the first woman to command an Israel Navy vessel, a Dvora-class patrol boat.
Ealier that year, in January 2014, Lt. Col. Oshrat Bachar became the IDF’s first female battalion commander when she took over as head of the “Eitam” Combat Intelligence Battalion.
But in the past two decades, there have also been setbacks in the advancement and integration of women into the military.
In 2015, just as it seemed like women would be able to serve as fighters, and not only instructors, in armored brigades, the army’s top brass rolled back their decision.
The degree of physical strain from the heavy tank shells and other equipment was the main factor that led the army to decide against integration, and less so the close proximity with men imposed by the tanks’ size, Shavtai said.
“The IDF’s chief medical officer determined that there was a physiological difficulty in that job. Everyone who serves in a tank requires a fitness level that allows them to lift a shell in order to load it into the cannon. And it’s very, very heavy,” she said.
However, the decision is still being discussed and there could be changes to that directive farther down the line.
“I think that [Israeli Aerospace] Industries and Rafael [Advanced Defense Systems] will want to create lighter missiles, and once that happens, it will be easier for me to integrate women [into the armored brigades],” Shavtai said.
Many of the societal and cultural obstacles that previously prevented women from serving in combat roles have already been shed.
In accordance with naval superstition, women are not supposed to enter the engine room of a ship so as to not make the ship jealous and angry. That superstition has been thrown out of the IDF, a naval officer said.
“How can you say a woman can’t go into the engine room, when a woman is the captain of the ship?” the officer asked.
But as more women enter combat roles, more questions will have to be answered, including some unexpected ones, like: What do you do with a pregnant combat soldier?
“They still don’t know how to handle women, in terms of pregnancy and birth,” Lt. Davir Mashash, a deputy company commander in the Home Front Command, told The Times of Israel over the phone.
“I see it like this, pregnancy is not a disease. If a soldier thinks she can keep working while pregnant, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to,” Mashash said. “The army needs to get with it.”
And in some ways, the army has.
The Israeli Air Force, for instance, reversed a decision that kept female pilots and navigators from flying while pregnant.
“There are combat airwomen now and their needs must be addressed,” Lt. Col. Dr. Yifat Ehrlich, the commander of the IAF’s flight medical unit, told the air force’s quarterly magazine at the time.
But for ground forces, the ban on pregnant fighters remains.
“There are things that it’s better for them to happen in their own time, rather than being pushed through,” Shavtai said.
“I don’t want to be considered in the army as some bra-burning feminist because I’m not like that. And when I say ‘I’, I don’t mean me, Limor, I mean the Gender Affairs Adviser unit, I mean us. We come to show people when there are things that aren’t operating as they should. But not just to be difficult,” she said.
“And yet, if we see places where there’s no need for differentiation, no need for distinction, no need for the absence of women, then we come and we demand and we insist.”
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- Israel & the Region
- Israel Inside
- IDF Israel Defense Forces
- women in the IDF
- gender inequality
- Caracal Battalion
- Alice Miller
- Gadi Eisenkot
- combat units
- Tel Hashomer
- IDF Medical Corps
- IAF Israeli Air Force
- Israel Navy
- General Staff
- IDF chief of staff
- Orna Barbivai
- Israeli War of Independence
- Paratroopers Brigade
- Artillery Corps
- Golani Brigade
- Lions of the Jordan Battalion
- Ruth Westheimer