IDF female soldiers training.
(photo credit: COURTESY IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
The IDF has long stood out for its conscription of women alongside men into national service, at the age of 18. Iconic photographs of women in battle date back to the Independence War in 1948.
Though for many years after, the army has relegated women soldiers too often to clerical jobs, the past 20 years have seen a boom in female soldiers breaking the army’s glass ceiling. Growing numbers of women soldiers are joining combat units, becoming officers and serving on the front line. Women in the fabled Caracal Battalion infantry unit have made headlines in recent years for their role in thwarting terrorist incursions in the South.
Israel has long been proud of its co-ed military and having been among the first countries to induct women into compulsory service. Dual gender service in the IDF is an integral part of who we are. This ethos goes hand in hand with the draft of a cross-section of Israel’s diverse society, having widened the pool to include more Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox men in recent years. The melting-pot nature of the IDF is a source of national pride, and a characteristic that sets the country apart from its closest ally in Washington. While US President Donald Trump rules out transgender troops for the American army, Israel enjoys the benefit of including LGBT soldiers in its military ranks.
At the same time, in the past 20 years, largely since a landmark High Court ruling entitled women to train as fighter pilots, rising numbers of women have been climbing up the IDF’s ranks, and volunteering for the more dangerous or daring combat units that were once solely male. Late last year this newspaper reported a 400% jump in women recruits to combat units over previous years.
All these accomplishments are now under threat, as prominent members of the Orthodox community publicly assail the value of women’s service, largely by protesting against the existence of mixed-gender units.
This debate about gender separation is doubly damaging. It is an insult to the women putting their lives on the line in the IDF and it shifts the focus of public debate away from more crucial security concerns. Israelis need to think more about keeping their military inclusive and inducting greater numbers of ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens.
It’s time for a strong public censure of what has become a routine litany of insults against female members of the IDF, insults leveled at them for no other reason than the fact they are women. The denigration of mixed gender units and attempt to discourage other women from enlisting is tantamount to denying the contributions – and mocking the sacrifices – made by women in their service in the IDF.
Just this past week activists posted a large billboard- looking ad alongside the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, which claims that Israel is stronger without mixed units.
Instead of being feted for their bravery and tenacity, young women risking their lives whether in an underground bunker or lying in ambush or helping to patrol a hostile border have become the butt of billboard campaigns that mock them. What is next? The abolition of female conscription altogether, perhaps?
Mixed gender service is what the IDF has always been about. Great gender equality has always been an aspiration of Israeli society and a source of pride. Some critics defend calls for women to avoid the IDF by pointing to incidents of sexual harassment and assault that have taken place on military bases. The IDF has taken steps to address these concerns. These issues, however, plague soldiers of both genders, and civilian life as well, in all parts of society. No social group is immune to this problem. Using it as an excuse for women to avoid the draft is certainly not the answer.
It would be more productive for all concerned parties to press for greater enforcement of the law against sex offenders, both in the military and outside it.
This would do much greater service than campaigning against women’s service in the military, which only insults the hundreds of thousands who have stepped forward over the years to serve their country.
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