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 Homefront Command is up 38% this year. Last month, the IDF launched a pilot program in which women will be trained as tank operators for the first time.
The IDF takes pride in being an oasis for gender equality in a Mideast region largely bereft of women’s rights.
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 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 — in a program hosted by the Young Leadership Division of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
The soldiers on the panel all told JNS they have never felt discrimination for being a woman in the military, and that their male counterparts treat them with respect.
Staff Sgt. Y described the interactions 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. From age 18-26, women must serve two years in the military — with some exceptions, such as if they are pregnant. Today, 95% of the IDF’s positions are available to women, according to Klifi-Amir.
Yet “equal opportunity” does not exist in the purest sense, the soldiers said.
Klifi-Amir told the crowd she does not believe all military positions should be open for women, depending on the mission.
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.
The soldier said her approach to military life can sometimes be shaped by what she believes male soldiers’ perceptions will be.
“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,” said Staff Sgt. Y.
“I don’t want [male soldiers] to think there’s an area where I am different from them. There’s no reason why he should do it. I will even get a little offended if he does.”
Gender is not the only issue 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. Because the medical material in civilian life is not the same as in the army. And some operations done in the civilian world are much harder.”
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 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 13th flotilla, a special unit comparable to the US Navy SEALs. As a paramedic, she has gone as far as treating 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. If we lose our values, we will become like other armies on the Arab side and Muslim side. We will not be like that.”