It is very likely that if anybody had told a young Carmela Menashe – a shy and introverted girl born to Iraqi immigrants – that she would emerge as one of the most respected journalists in the country’s history, the childhood version of herself would probably scoff at that prediction.
And yet, after a career spanning nearly three decades, she is about to add another prize to her very impressive resume.
On this Independence Day, Menashe is to be one of the 14 women lighting torches at the annual ceremony. It is a prestigious honor, but Menashe is most proud of her work championing IDF soldiers who are in desperate need of her assistance.
In this interview, Menashe touches on her work in that domain, what it’s like to be a woman in such a male dominated field and the constant juggling act involved with being a single mother who holds a 24/7 job.
You’ve won a number of prestigious awards already, but what does being chosen as one of the torch-lighters in this year’s Independence Day ceremony mean to you? And to women in general?
Ever since I was a little girl, the Independence Day ceremony has held almost religious significance for me. I remember thinking that the people lighting the torches were an integral part of Israeli society and that I too yearned to be a part of this group. Yes, I’ve won a number of awards in my lifetime, but lighting a torch on Independence Day is so meaningful to me and my family members, who made aliya from Iraq and were not considered a part of Israeli society.
I was also very moved on a personal level when I received the message that I was chosen to participate in the ceremony. I happened to be visiting my parents, when the organizers contacted me. They both started to cry. There’s no doubt that this will send an important message to all the girls and women living in Israel. This is the highest recognition of women’s distinguished achievements and successes in Israel on a national level.
Why did you choose to become a military reporter?
After I completed my military service in the paratroopers, I began working for Army Radio. I worked as a secretary, while I studied for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, which I completed with honors. Then I signed up for a correspondent’s course. The first article I worked on was for a program called Tzivei Keshet that was produced by Gideon Hod. Afterwards, I prepared articles for two shows: Housewives and My Weekly Column. Next, I reported about traffic, economics, health and the police.
I never made a decision to become a military reporter – my boss did.
When my predecessor, Shmulik Tal, retired, my producer called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to take over as the military correspondent. I was shocked – I mean, I was working for a very conservative radio station that had never hired a woman to cover the police or the military. But I took him up on his offer. This was in the days of the first intifada. Chief of staff Dan Shomron summoned all of the military reporters to his office and everyone there was up-to-date on all of the background information. But I just sat there, watching silently.
Afterwards, I went back to my boss and told him, “I can’t do this. Please, put me back on police issues.”
He looked at me for a second, and then said, “Take a few days to consider it before making your decision. I know you, and I have no doubt you’ll succeed in overcoming the hurdles.”
I’ve been in this position for almost 25 years now. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s a very complex position and I’ve had to work day, night, on Shabbat and holidays, even in the most horrific weather conditions. It’s a very demanding job.
And being a woman only adds to the complexity. At first, every time a woman works in a man’s field it’s not easy. Even after all of these achievements in fields that are known to be very masculine and sexist, we are still judged.
At first, it was very difficult being a woman journalist trying to cover a military operation. Eyebrows were raised when I accompanied soldiers to Lebanon. I took many soldiers by surprise when I asked them questions about their forthcoming military operations.
I’ll never forget one soldier who had just returned from one, and when I asked him whether the ambush had been successful, he looked at me and said, “What would you know about it?” When former chief of staff Rafi Eitan was an MK, he asked me during one of my visits to the Knesset, “Are you the military correspondent?” When I answered him that I was, he said, “Have you ever carried out an attack on terrorists? What qualifies you to interview the chief of staff or the defense minister?” This is a very sexist way of looking at the world. Women are still forced to explain themselves or apologize.
NO STRANGER to prizes, Menashe poses with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with a plaque from EMET, an organization that acknowledges individuals for their academic and professional achievements in arts, science and culture. (Abir Sultan / Flash 90)
Would you say it’s easier now in 2014 to be a woman who is a military correspondent?
Women’s struggle for equal status has come a long way. Our political struggle for equal rights for working women has made great strides. But the fight is not over yet, and we need to continue fighting for serious social change in Israeli society. The glass ceiling is still in place despite some women’s great success stories. When I was a little girl, I wasn’t raised to be a feminist. I didn’t yearn to break through the glass ceiling, because I didn’t know one existed.
We need to increase awareness and eradicate prejudice so that women will have a chance to fulfill their dreams. We have made some headway, but there is still so much left to do. I had a very hard time getting into the military field – and it is such an important part of Israeli life and remains a man’s domain. I think that it’s the job of a military correspondent to physically report from the field, where the soldiers are situated. But I do not believe that the IDF is holy, and it is the job of the military correspondent to investigate what goes on there.
During Operation Defensive Shield, as I was interviewing soldiers in the field, I discovered that many of them lacked basic protective gear. For example, in the Balata refugee camp, some IDF soldiers involved in fighting were not wearing proper bulletproof vests due to a severe shortage. The IDF spokesman denied this claim, but due to my report, the matter was taken up by the State Control Committee. The State Comptroller’s Report corroborated my discovery and the IDF was compelled to make drastic changes.
You’re known for aiding troops who have been harassed and neglected within the IDF. What are the most significant examples of helping soldiers that you feel affected you the most?
Some moments can never be forgotten and remain etched in your mind forever. Comforting parents of soldiers who have been killed is one of the hardest things to do. When I hear that a soldier has died, I immediately think of the mother who hasn’t been informed yet. At that moment, she might be shopping for Shabbat, planning in her mind the wonderful delicacies she’s going to prepare for her child whom she loves dearly. I think about those moments when the IDF representatives arrive at the soldier’s home to inform the family that their son or daughter has been killed in the line of duty. I think of that moment when their lives are destroyed – changed for all eternity. Things can never go back to the way they were. There is no end to their agony. These moments are not the highlight of my career, but I cannot wipe them from my memory.
I’ve been meeting with bereaved families for many, many years. The hardest part is seeing families whose loved ones were killed due to a mishap or from negligence. It’s very painful to be a bereaved parent, but when you know that your child died due to negligence or in an accident, it’s extra hard to come to terms with a child’s death.
Many people continue investigating the incident for years, always searching for more clues.
One time as I was walking down the street, a woman I didn’t know came up to me and told me, “You saved my son’s life. I live in Kfar Saba and one Friday night I called you and told you that my son had taken his gun and had run out into the orchard. And you saved him.”
I remember that night – I had called the Military Police and had the entire IDF out there looking for him. They saved his life.
It’s my job as a journalist to report on soldiers’ daily activities, in addition it’s to expose injustices, flaws and failures that occur in the IDF and to prevent them from being covered up. When I’m broadcasting live from the location of an operation, I view what’s happening through the eyes of the soldiers’ mothers and fathers. It’s my job to raise public awareness, to present our soldiers in a dignified way and to help bring about legislative changes, as well as changes within the IDF and of social norms.
What about the treatment of women specifically? How have they progressed within the organization?
There is no gender equality in the IDF, and I don’t expect there to be a female chief of staff in the foreseeable future. However, the first female major general has paved the way for other women to follow. Times are changing – women and men now go through basic training and officer courses together. The younger generation has grown up in a different reality, where male and female soldiers compete for the same positions.
Today, women serve in the Border Police, there are women combat pilots, and many women sign on to serve for three years in combat positions. But more women need to move into senior positions and become colonels and brigadier- generals. It’s difficult since members of the old boys’ club promote their buddies.
Fortunately, there have been great strides with respect to sexual harassment in the military. The senior staff has a better understanding of what sexual harassment is and the rules are clearer to what constitutes verbal harassment too. Female soldiers are better educated about their rights and the late chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak ruled that consensual sexual relations between a subordinate and her commander were a violation of military orders. Although it has not disappeared, this phenomenon has become less prevalent.
I still remember the female soldier who approached me extremely upset and scared. She told me that a colonel had been raping her for an entire year – he had turned her into his sex slave. I accompanied her to the Military Police so she could lodge a complaint. I helped her through those many difficult days, and thankfully the officer was sent to jail for a few years. She had joined the army hoping to contribute to her country, but left a broken shell of a person.
She is no longer capable of leaving her house.
Switching gears, how about your personal life? How has being a single mother impacted you professionally and personally?
Fifteen years ago, after much deliberation, I took the plunge and became a mother to Ella, the love of my life. It was very hard in the beginning – I had no idea how difficult and complex it would be. I wasn’t so young anymore and I was used to living a very independent lifestyle.
And then all of a sudden there was this little, helpless being that relied on me for everything. I was very confused when I first brought her home. But with help from my parents – they are wonderful grandparents – and friends, my daughter has grown up to be an opinionated, young woman who is sensitive to social injustice and has a big heart.
She has spent so many hours at the radio station that I think she knows it better than I do.
During the Second Lebanon War, I left home for a month. Ella slept at a friend’s house and at my parents. During Operation Cast Lead, I also had to leave home for a month, and during Operation Pillar of Defense I left for a week. I joined the troops on the battlefield, since I’m a military correspondent and that’s just part of the job. I was broadcasting from the field. I recorded soldiers and broadcast their voices so that their mothers could hear them and respond to them in real time.
It was difficult doing my job knowing that my own daughter, Ella, was all alone.
I was always afraid to say, “No I can’t do that” or “I’m afraid.”
I think that every man and woman should strive to put the public above their own private needs. It is very difficult to raise a child by yourself when you have such a demanding profession.
Many times, Ella’s asked me when I’m going to become more like other mothers.
She asks, “Why do you have time to listen to the soldiers, but not to me? Why do you need to go to work at midnight?” And yet, I’m a very dedicated mother and very involved. I know what Ella does for homework and I help her study for tests. I spend every spare minute I have with Ella.
The IDF used to be a microcosm of Israeli society. But now, with more haredim getting out of military service and more people opting for national service, do you think that still rings true? In general, I think that the IDF is a reflection of Israeli society. There is racism against Ethiopian, Beduin and Druse soldiers.
An IDF officer with the rank of major once told a soldier of Ethiopian descent who wanted to go to the health clinic, “Black people are not allowed here.”
I saw many male and female soldiers being humiliated. It’s absolutely outrageous how many soldiers are sent to prison just because their commanders have the power and authority to do so. I’ve published accounts of commanders who violently abused their subordinates. I’ve seen soldiers who needed physical and/or emotional medical care, but whose commanders refused to let them be treated.
Some soldiers live below the poverty line, and return home to an empty fridge. Some soldiers with disabled parents desert the army so that they can work and support their families financially. Some commanders help their soldiers – sometimes even giving them money out of their own pockets – but others are deaf to their subordinates’ problems.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.