Skirting history

Looking back at female soldiers' traditional roles and forward to future.

old idf women 88 224 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
old idf women 88 224
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
When the Palmah and Hagana were merged into the newly created Israel Defense Force in 1948, a group of women headed the carrier pigeon unit. It was not a harbinger of things to come: Most of their female peers would serve in clerical roles, though women were active partners during the battle for independence. Sixty years later, as Israel is still the only nation in the world to draft women to army service, many women in the IDF have moved up the ranks. But they have not climbed so high as to become major-generals. The subject of women's integration into all areas of IDF service is a looming question mark that is especially prominent on the radar of Brig-Gen. Yehudit Grisaro. Soon, she says, the issue will likely be in the public eye as well, as changes may be coming, depending on what happens in the next weeks. There is a good chance, she predicts, that women may soon be recruited, trained and serving according to a new set of rules - one that won't be gender-based. Grisaro doesn't have to raise a finger to check if the winds are changing in that direction. Adviser to the chief of General Staff on women's issues, head of senior IDF personnel and a three-decade army professional who has earned the highest rank available to a woman, she is in on every decision that affects women's military careers. The lip gloss and blow-dried bob that accessorize Grisaro's pressed uniform, assertive posture and petite exterior are a matter of considered choice in the mostly male bastions that have promoted her. "If women act like men and talk like men, then why do you need women?" she likes to say. At a recent conference on women in the military at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Dr. Orna Sasson Levy, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist who studied female soldiers in combat units said that her research has found that women in non-traditional army roles often mimic the behavior, posture and language of male combat soldiers. Grisaro, on the panel with Sasson-Levy, said that the army has recently started to encourage women in training to retain their own identity. "We remind them not to give that up," she said. Grisaro, in many respects, was always an anomaly. From 1981, when she started out in air force technology, she rose early on in the ranks. She was promoted to administrative officer after one year and her first job was adjunct IAF squadron officer, and she later served in IDF and IAF headquarters and at several bases, primarily as an administrative and human resources officer. Around her, the doors for women were only marginally ajar. A majority of women serving in the IDF then were secretaries. The rest served primarily as instructors, nurses, clerks and telephone operators. Until that time, women were only in isolated leadership or combat positions: Women fought in combat roles in the pre-state battle for independence, a few women flew transport missions in the 1950s and a few women were accepted into flight training in the 1970s, but did not complete the program before it was closed to women. According to Rina Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women's Network, roles for women beyond technical and secretarial support only started to open up in the late 1970s and early '80s, because of manpower shortages. Since then, a few women have earned ranks higher than colonel. In 1986, Amira Dotan, then head of the Women's Corps, made history when she became the first female brigadier-general. Grisaro would be third of the 12 women to achieve that rank. At the time, the female brigadier-generals were primarily commanding officers of female, not male, soldiers. In the mid-1990s, Grisaro was the rare female officer on an air force base, when civilian pilot and aeronautical engineer Alice Miller successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to take the IAF pilot training exams, after being rejected on grounds of gender. Though president Ezer Weizman, a former IAF commander, told Miller that she'd be better off staying home and darning socks, the court eventually ruled in 1996 that the IAF could not exclude qualified women from pilot training. Even though Miller would not pass the exams, the ruling was a watershed, opening doors for women in new IDF roles. Female legislators took advantage of the momentum to draft a bill allowing women to volunteer for any position, if they could qualify. But it would take years to make its way through the Knesset. In 1997, when Grisaro was appointed the first female squadron head at the Tel Nof air force base, the largest in the country, her commander teased her that her presence was forcing the men to stop telling dirty jokes. It was still a bastion of male chauvinism, she says. But in 1999, after chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz had been criticized for mismanaging a high-profile military sexual harassment case, he launched an integration plan to open senior jobs to female officers, open greater numbers of jobs to women, call up more women for reserve duty and lengthen women's service to equal men's. The plan was only marginally implemented. The following year, the Equality in Military Service amendment that female lawmakers had drafted years earlier finally granted equal opportunities to women found physically and personally suitable for a job. The loosely-defined question of who and what was "suitable," though, was left to the discretion of military leaders on a case-by-case basis. Women did start to enter combat support and light combat roles in a few areas, including the Artillery Corps, infantry units and armored divisions. A few platoons - Karakal - were formed for men and women to serve together in light infantry on the primarily peaceful borders with Egypt and Jordan; by 2004 Karakal became a full-fledged brigade. Many women would also join the Border Police. In 2000, the Women's Corps was dismantled so that female soldiers for the first time would fall under the authority of individual units based on jobs and not on gender. They would wear the insignia of their units instead of the insignia of the Women's Corps. THE JOB of adviser to the chief of General Staff on women's affairs was created in part because of pressure from women's groups. By the time Grisaro was appointed to the post in 2006, the first female pilots and navigators had already graduated from the IAF training course, and several hundred women had entered combat units, primarily in support roles, like intelligence gatherers, instructors, social workers, medics and engineers. When the Second Lebanon War broke out, it was the first time since 1948 that women were in field operations alongside men. Airborne helicopter engineer Sgt.-Maj. (res.) Keren Tendler was the first female combat soldier to be killed in action. "I looked very carefully at the reaction of society to this loss," says Grisaro. "It was amazing to see the reaction was similar to the loss of her male colleagues also killed on the same mission; I'm not sure if 10 years ago the reaction would have been the same. Society has come a long way." Still, many argue that it still has a long way to go. Kadima MK Amira Dotan, a reserve brigadier-general, charges that the chief of General Staff's adviser on women's affairs is not given appropriate responsibilities. "She is doing a wonderful job, but doesn't have enough tools to do even better. The job should be more than that of an adviser. If the OC Chaplaincy Corps is the highest ranking person who knows about Judaism, the adviser is the highest ranking person who knows about feminism and women's issues." "The fact that no woman holds a rank higher than brigadier-general essentially means that only men define and determine issues of national security," says Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, chairwoman of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women in Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Law. Responding to concerns about the superficial integration of women in the IDF, Grisaro got together with a handful of other female brigadier-generals - including Orit Adato, Devora Hasid and Suzy Yogev - and created a committee to make recommendations for women's integration issues in combat units, positions of authority and all forms of recruitment, training, service and service length, headed by former chief human resources officer Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yehuda Segev. In 2007, when headlines splashed news that the panel recommended the integration of women into all units, including all positions in combat units, society protested. Opposition arguments ranged from the practical question of physical strength to the psychological question of men being distracted by women, to the Orthodox question of immodesty in a mixed-gender environment. Even some women's groups and influential women opposed the idea. Dotan holds that women should primarily be in "brainpower not physical power." She says the women in light infantry and support combat roles are a very small minority of the IDF. She also said that as women volunteer for combat units and serve 30 months, they should be recognized for serving longer than their peers and receive special benefits. A bill she has sponsored on this subject will be heard in the Knesset's winter session, she said. There are also feminists who argue against integration, because they believe efforts should focus on encouraging the role of women in advancing non-militarism, says Halperin-Kaddari: "They see the added value of women as being a force for advancing peace. There is still so much to do to advance women and some find it bothersome that society moves in the direction of 'equalization' of duties while it's so far from being gender equal in all other areas, like the labor market. So they see a move that will put even more duty, more obligations on women - without benefits - as a mistake." As newspapers around the world continue to tout the role of women in the IDF as a vanguard for what is possible in their own militaries - headlines splashed across India last month when the country decided to open more military roles to women - Israel is still undecided about the role of its own female soldiers. Brig.-Gen. Yehudit Grisaro, the chief of General Staff's adviser on women's issues, shares her experiences and predictions What is the most important issue your office is working on? The most important issue is how to integrate women in the right way. It's a serious issue. We are not doing our job only to create equal opportunities for women - that's important. But much more important is to improve the effectiveness of the IDF. We need to look carefully at the differences between women and men to find answers. We should look at this issue as part of a very complicated system, not just who was nominated for high rank. There are factors of culture, social process and the law. What is the most recent important landmark for women in the military? The commitment and conclusion of the 2007 committee [to make recommendations for women's integration issues] is a meaningful step - dealing with combat and all aspects of women's service, how it should look, classification, equal opportunity, length of service, how to engage day-to-day life. It's a whole system of women's service and service model, maybe for the first time. It was previously done piecemeal over the years. One of our recommendations deals with the length of service. It's not only up to the IDF but the law - the Knesset - to look at integration in all aspects and the need to create a vector for where we want to go. We need to ask if differences in length of service are right and to decide if we want to change it. Maybe we will have a full program, but it depends on what kind of recommendations the chief of General Staff will accept and implement. My prediction for a time frame is maybe three months... We have waited so long. What is the current status of the committee? The issue of women in combat is progressing and we have been improving integration since 2000. There have been great improvements, and most of the taboos have been lifted. We allowed women to serve as fighters in anti-aircraft, artillery, Karakal light infantry, pilots, navigators, sailors, search and rescue, etc. The fact that I can't remember all the units is a good indication of how many are now open to women. We are also working to create a vision for service of women and make sure all we are doing is appropriate for where we want to be 10 years from now. We are like a start-up organization [with a long-term plan]. Do you expect to see women in face-to-face combat eventually? That's a big question and I don't know how to answer. But we have to ask hard questions and answer honestly and professionally, and not just based on the past and tradition. When I talk about integration into Golani and Givati, people respond, "Look at the US, women are not allowed in face-to-face combat." And my answer is, "Women are not drafted in the US." And if we draft women for two years, a long and meaningful time, we need to ask and answer honestly and professionally: Why not allow suitable women to serve in combat units? I'm optimistic that one day women will be allowed to serve in the infantry. I don't expect women and men will be the same. If there are a few who can pass the physical exams and are equipped with the ability and motivation, it will not be because of equality, but because of effectiveness. What is your response to the specific arguments against having women in combat, for example that women are too weak, will need to be protected, will not be able to carry equal amounts of gear, will be distracting, and could even be taken hostage and raped, which would be devastating to national morale? I'm a mother of three boys - I can tell you my sons are not much stronger than their female colleagues in every field and I cannot say all men are very strong heroes and all women are weak. I don't expect to find the same abilities. I'm sure there are weak and strong women. Women want to say, "Don't patronize me. Please test my abilities; make clear criteria; and if I'm accepted, please deal with it, accept me." But I don't think gender is the point of the debate... The point is to create objective criteria and allow all people without any discrimination to take part - and please respect the results. What are other areas of integration beyond combat? We are working on the number of women in technology and combat support, especially in operational units, and not only in workshops, but in the field. We see a great improvement in the IAF on this issue - 25% today. We want to duplicate this success in the ground forces. We are also working on the number of religious women, maybe to create a special unit with special conditions that will give them the opportunity to combine their religious lifestyle with the demands of military service - to pray, eat, be together with other religious women, to feel it's the right place for them and not feel different or alienated. What is the approach to integration: to create jobs appropriate for women or to have women conform to male jobs? There is no contradiction between the two attitudes. We need to seek the best potential in people without discrimination, and find the right way to use this potential. If we find conclusively that a specific possibility is more right for women than men, it's okay - but based on objective parameters. Is there an example of a job that's better for a woman than a man? I admit most soldiers in field intelligence are women. It's a very important and difficult mission. We understood that women are more appropriate, but if I find a man who is appropriate, it's okay. Women are better motivated; they see it as operational and meaningful and sit for hours looking at computers and are very focused on each movement. The movement might be an enemy. You might need to call the fighters. Before women were there, males did it, and commanders say the women do it much better. What kinds of changes will there need to be to accommodate women into new roles? Will the IDF need to build new barracks, new bathrooms, new uniforms, for example? Women are equal but different. We need to respond to differences between men and women, so we need to create an appropriate utility vest, appropriate practices, appropriate food, if we want to build the ability of women to the maximum. We used to say, "Give the same opportunity, same clothes, same practice and it's okay." No, we need to be aware of differences and not give up because of differences. It costs money, but it's key to the better use of our potential. What is the meaning of the inscribed ring you wear? The inscription is from the Kabbala - a blessing for success. My mom gave it to me when I was promoted. My mother is my role model; she's a great woman, very decisive, a fighter; she didn't serve as a fighter, but life gave her opportunities to fight and she did it very well. I love her a lot; she had a great role in my IDF career. She supported me all the time. Without her support and that of my husband and children, I couldn't be here today so proud and satisfied. Numbers game
  • 33 percent of IDF soldiers are women
  • 25% of officers are female
  • only 10% of combat roles are open to women
  • 2-3% of open combat roles are held by women
  • 12% of female soldiers are secretaries
  • 285 women have entered the air force flight training program since it opened to women in 1996
  • 19 have graduated: 3 combat pilots, 6 combat navigators, 5 helicopter pilots, 3 cargo pilots, 1 cargo navigator and 1 flight engineer
  • Number of women brigadier-generals: 12
  • Number of women major-generals: 0