Poll: More than half of Jewish Israelis support women serving in elite IDF units

New survey by Israel Democracy Institute also finds plurality of parents prefer their children to join technological units over combat

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A female dog handler from the elite Oketz unit is seen during an arrest raid in the West Bank, early November 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
A female dog handler from the elite Oketz unit is seen during an arrest raid in the West Bank, early November 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

More than half of Jewish Israelis think that elite combat units in the Israel Defense Forces should be fully open to women, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute published on Tuesday.

The IDF began for the first time this month to draft new female recruits into a number of elite units. In June, the IDF said it would open more combat roles to female fighters — including in elite search and rescue and combat engineering units — in addition to the mixed-gender light infantry units where some already serve.

The poll, which was released ahead of the think tank’s national security and democracy conference taking place this week, asked roughly 800 adult respondents a number of questions about the military and its role in Israeli society, with a margin of error of ±3.52%.

The majority of Jewish Israelis — 54 percent — said they think all elite units should be open to women, while 35% said they disagree, according to the poll.

When analyzing the results according to religious levels, the poll found that 72% of secular Jewish Israelis support women in elite units, while only 19% of national religious and 17% of ultra-Orthodox agree.

The poll also questioned Jewish Israelis on where they would prefer their children serve in the military.

Illustrative: A soldier from the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate works at a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

The survey found that 44% of women and 45.5% of men would prefer that their children serve in technological units, such as the prestigious Unit 8200, the army’s intelligence gathering unit.

Meanwhile, 22% of women and 11% of men said they don’t want their children to serve at all, and 16% of women and 18% of men said they have no preference.

When it comes to serving in a combat unit, 2% of women and 5% of men said they would prefer to see their children serving in a regular combat unit, while 3% of women and 9% of men said they would prefer to see their children serving in an elite unit.

The new draft of female recruits to the elite units will likely serve as a litmus test for military planners, who say more roles may be opened in the future depending on the success of integration in these units.

The IDF also has plans to allow female recruits to serve as drivers in an infantry brigade. The brigade in which the pilot will run will be determined at a later date.

Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The June decision was made following recommendations of an internal committee that called on the military to open new combat roles to female recruits.

The committee was formed by the IDF in 2020 to evaluate the integration of women in additional combat roles in the military, after four female recruits petitioned the High Court of Justice for the right to try out for combat units that are currently open only to men.

The committee estimated that there were likely dozens of potential female recruits who meet the physiological thresholds required for certain roles in infantry units, but decided to allow them to serve first only as drivers, in order to put the theory to the test.

The potential drivers will need to meet the requirements necessary for infantry troops.

The panel, explaining the relatively modest expansion, said it did not think more than a handful of women would meet the tough physiological requirements for other roles in elite combat units.

Women serve in a variety of roles in the IDF, in many cases alongside male counterparts.

Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

There are also fully integrated mixed-gender combat units such as the Caracal and Bardelas battalions, which are tasked with protecting Israel’s border with Egypt and Jordan, respectively.

The IDF last month declared the success of a two-year pilot program for a company of all-women tank operators in Caracal, and said the role would become permanent in the military.

In the Air Force, women and men serve together in the air defense units, including the Iron Dome — technically considered a combat unit.

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders hail it as a long-needed measure that puts Israel on par with other Western countries.

Detractors note that some requirements for female combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that servicewomen suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.

The army has insisted in the past that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a progressive social agenda.

Military service is compulsory for Israeli men, who serve for two years and eight months, while women serve for two years. Some units require troops to stay on longer than their compulsory time due to lengthy training periods.

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