Twenty years after the first group of women were inducted into the Border Police and 23-year-old South African immigrant Alice Miller successfully sued the military for the right to serve in the air force, the role of women in the IDF continues to be a subject of fierce debate.
In 1949, the IDF became the first in the world to introduce mandatory military service for both men and women.
Today, with service in a combat unit a prerequisite for promotion to the top decision- making ranks, the IDF is seeking to open up more combat roles for women.
A handful of women fought during the War of Independence, and Yael Rom became the first graduate of the prestigious pilots course in 1951.
But shortly after, women were barred from combat positions, including becoming pilots, until Alice Miller came along.
While Miller was declared medically unfit for the role of a pilot, her actions shattered the glass ceiling in the IAF, allowing women like Sheri Rahat to become the first female graduate and F-16 combat navigator in 1998, and Roni Zuckerman, the granddaughter of two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to graduate as the first female combat pilot in 2000.
As of today, more than 40 women have served as pilots and another woman received her pilot’s wings this past Thursday.
An estimated 90% of the positions in the IDF are now open to women, including combat roles in the navy, Home Front Command, Artillery Corps and Military Police in Judea and Samaria. Other combat posts that have been cleared for female soldiers include operating the Spike (Tammuz) missile and the hand-launched Skylark UAV.
In October, Maj. Reut (last name withheld for security reasons) was promoted to lieutenant- colonel and was made commander of the Sky Rider Battalion, becoming the second woman to be appointed commander of a combat unit.
But despite the push for more female combat soldiers, combat units remain overwhelmingly male, with female combat soldiers still accounting for only 7% of front-line troops. Nevertheless, that is an increase from 3% four years ago when the number of female combat soldiers stood at around 500 to more than 2,100 in 2015, and the IDF expects that number to rise to 9.5% by next year.
The IDF is considering opening up additional options to women to make up for the loss of manpower since the mandatory service period for men was reduced from three years to 32 months. These include positions such as aboard the navy’s Sa’ar missile ships as well as in the Armored Corps, a controversial move harshly criticized by former top officers.
During a recent hearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Brig.-Gen. Eran Shani, head of the Human Resource Planning and Management Division, said the IDF will be reexamining the possibility of integrating women into the Armored Corps as the “scope of functions that have opened up to women in recent years has increased.”
But, according to the army, there would be no mixed-gender tanks and female tank crews would not be part of battalions that would operate in enemy territory, rather they would be deployed only to the borders.
According to Shani, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has approved women serving in the IAF’s Unit 669, a prestigious search and rescue unit. Women will also be able to serve in the Engineering Corps, where they will be operating heavy machinery, such as the armored D-9 bulldozer, in enemy territory during ground operations led by the infantry and the Armored Corps.
In the infantry, there has also been an increase of female combat soldiers in the co-ed Caracal and Lions of Jordan battalions assigned to guard the borders with Egypt and Jordan. In 2014, Lt.-Colonel Oshrat Bacher, a member of Caracal, became the first woman in the IDF to command a combat brigade.
Yet while female troops in those two mixed-gender battalions undergo the same seven months of training that their male counterparts go through, a gap in physical expectations at the end of the training remain.
Amit Yadid, platoon commander in the Home Front Command’s search and rescue fighter unit, told The Jerusalem Post
that in her platoon, one third are women, “but there are others where women make up 50% of the platoon, that’s the usual makeup of the platoons.”
“It’s not always about the physical. Many times the mentality of a person is much more important,” she told the Post
. “For a woman to be a fighter, and to give three years to the army instead of two, they are very strong, mentally. Everything is in your head. If a woman feels that she can do it, she can do anything.”
According to Yadid, she hasn’t faced any chauvinism during her four and a half years in the army, but despite that, and despite the rise of women in the army, there has been an increase in claims of sexual harassment in the army, from 777 reports in 2012, to 930 in 2013 and 1,073 in 2014.
The current case of Brig.- Gen. Ofek Buchris, who faces 16 charges of sexual assault, has caused a public outcry.
Buchris’s charges include three counts of rape and six of indecent acts against a lower- ranking female soldier, as well as another six counts of indecent acts against a second female soldier. If the full plea bargain he reached with the military prosecutor is accepted, Buchris would not serve any jail time, only be demoted in rank.
As the percentage of women serving in combat roles has risen, the percentage of women in clerical positions has dropped significantly. One out of every four women in the army served in clerical roles in 1998, 21.4% in 2001, 13.4% in 2012, but only 7% in 2016, matching the percentage of women serving in combat roles.
Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbivai was the highest-ranking female officer in the IDF, serving as the head of the army’s Personnel Directorate until she retired in 2013. But since she retired, no other woman has attained her rank.
While there are no female major-generals, the army currently has four female brigadier- generals: Brig.-Gen.
Merav Kirshner, who heads the manpower planning and administration division in the Personnel Directorate, Brig.- Gen. Michal Ben-Muvhar, who heads its staffing department, Brig.-Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, the chief military censor, and Brig.-Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, the women’s affairs adviser to the chief of staff.
Women have been making great strides in the IDF since the glass ceiling that was shattered more than 20 years ago by Alice Miller and that first group of female border police officers. But with top roles in the IDF still filled by men, there is still a long way to go before the IDF sees its first female chief of staff.