Israel’s Female Soldiers: A Difficult Balance of Equality and Military Reality
JNS.org –Israel’s female soldiers seem to break barriers on a consistent basis. In January, new figures revealed that the number of women serving in combat roles in the IDF’s Home Front Command is up 38 percent this year. And last month, the IDF launched a pilot program in which women will be trained as tank operators for the first time.
Indeed, the Jewish state takes pride in being an oasis for gender equality in a region largely bereft of women’s rights; this attitude extends to Israel’s military. At the same time, for a nation facing ever-present security threats both internally and on its borders, gender equality has its limits.
“The mission of the army is to protect and win. We need to understand that the mission of the army is not equal opportunity,” Brigadier General (Res.) Gila Klifi-Amir, who has had a 30-year career with the IDF and served as an adviser on women’s issues to the military’s chief of staff, said on April 3 in New York City.
Klifi-Amir moderated a discussion with three female Israeli soldiers — Sgt. Noam, Staff Sgt. Maya and Staff Sgt. “Y” — whose full names were withheld for security reasons. The panel took place as part of a program hosted by the Young Leadership Division of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding the “education and well-being” of IDF soldiers.
The female soldiers on the panel all told JNS.org that they have never encountered discrimination, and that their male counterparts treat them with respect. Staff Sgt. Y described her interactions with male soldiers as “very, very professional,” and Staff Sgt. Maya — who commands an infirmary at her battalion’s headquarters — explained, “We train with the guys, we do everything like them. Inside the unit, everything is the same.”
Israel is the world’s only country where military service is obligatory for women. Women must serve two years in the military, with some exceptions, such as if they are pregnant. Today, 95 percent of the IDF’s positions are available to women, according to Klifi-Amir.
Yet “equal opportunity” does not exist in the purest sense, the female soldiers said. Klifi-Amir told the crowd that she does not believe all military positions should be open to women. The physical training required for some military roles may be too grueling for a woman’s body, and the IDF is responsible for the life of each soldier, she said.
“Where it’s right and it could be helpful, then it should be done. Where it’s not, then no,” Staff Sgt. Y said, regarding equal military roles for men and women.
“I need to learn to carry my own equipment, even if it’s very heavy, and when someone offers to help me, I know to say no,” Staff Sgt. Y said. “I don’t want [male soldiers] to think there’s an area where I am different from them.”
Gender is not the only issue that these soldiers grapple with.
Sgt. Noam, 19, who was born in Vietnam and adopted as an infant by an IDF soldier’s widow, discussed the challenge of training medical personnel in reserve units, and getting the trainees to respect her because of her youth.
“Most of the people are 40-years-old or 35, and I’m so young,” she said. “A doctor who has so much experience, how can I tell him what to do? It’s challenging. How can I teach him…? Because the medical material [learned] in a civilian’s life is not the same as in the army. And some operations done in the civilian world are much harder [to perform in the army].”
She also said that her Vietnamese background has attracted some unwanted attention from Israelis. Due to Israel’s relatively low East Asian-born population, she said, people probe her about her family and her physical appearance, and wonder how she can speak Hebrew so well.
“My favorite question is, ‘What are you?’ So sometimes I just answer that I’m an alien and that you should take me to your leader,” Noam said.
Staff Sgt. Y, 23, is the first female soldier to oversee medical protocol and instruction in the Israeli Navy’s Flotilla 13 (“Shayetet”), a special unit comparable to the US Navy SEALs. As a paramedic, she has also treated wounded terrorists.
“Inside of me, it’s not easy at all,” she said of that experience. “It is very, very hard. … But it’s part of the job.”
Klifi-Amir added, “If we lose our values, we will become like other armies on the Arab side and [the] Muslim side. We will not be like that.”