Jerusalem's first female bomb disposal expert explodes glass ceiling

St.-Sgt.-Maj. Alex Pekerman is first female bomb disposal specialist in the capital.

ST.-SGT.-MAJ. ALEX PEKERMAN at work. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
In a city that has rarely been celebrated for its progressive views toward women, St.-Sgt.- Maj. Alex Pekerman is a pioneer.
The daughter of a police officer raised in Jerusalem during the bloody second intifada, Pekerman, 27, is Jerusalem’s first female police bomb disposal specialist, and only one of two such women specialists in the country.
Moreover, she began her position just six months ago, when what many are deeming a third intifada first struck the city.
Acutely aware of this fact, Pekerman is not intimidated by the danger her job entails, or by any man not accustomed to working with a woman in the dangerous and macho field.
Pekerman’s immutable confidence stems from her exposure as a child to her father’s perilous profession as a veteran explosive disposal officer.
“I grew up during a very difficult period in Jerusalem, and was always aware of what was going on in terms of security, and what the police were doing to respond,” said Pekerman on a chilly and drizzly Wednesday afternoon at Jerusalem’s Russian Compound police headquarters.
“Throughout the years I was growing up in that kind of surrounding, and when I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the future, I found myself pulled toward the field of bomb disposal experts. And now, here I am.”
Asked if she harbors any fears about the literally explosive nature of her work, Pekerman’s response was immediate and unequivocal.
“No,” she responded. “You have to cut out the thought of fear. You have to focus on the work that has to be done – on the community and the people at risk – until you complete the task.”
And while that task has become exponentially more complicated and dangerous over the past several months of unpredictable violence, which has only recently began to ebb, Pekerman said passing a highly competitive and demanding training program has eliminated any self doubt.
“I went through an intensive sixmonth course in which only a limited number of people begin and complete each year,” she said. “Only approximately 10 candidates pass the exams that take place during the course each year. You are constantly tested.”
Outside the classroom, those tests are manifested through a variety of potentially dangerous, yet seemingly benign objects, including backpacks, purses, and unattended packages.
“We deal with suspicious objects and packages on a daily basis,” she said. “When I arrive at terrorist-related scenes, we have to make sure there is no short-term or long-term danger, and that the area is cordoned off. You have to make 100% certain there is no danger to the police officers at the scene, or the civilians nearby.”
Noting the present volatility of the capital, Pekerman said that a bomb disposal expert is always on hand at every public event to ensure “an immediate response, if necessary.”
“That’s my day-to-day reality,” she said.
During her off time, Pekerman said she decompresses by “just living a normal life,” by exercising, playing sports, and spending time with family and friends.
“You have to remember that it’s work,” she emphasized. “You have to complete the work and then move on, and be ready for the next day.”
With respect to dealing with the male perception of her, Pekerman described her experience as a mixed bag of intimidation and respect.
“Some of them are intimidated, and some of them are not,” she said.
“Some of them think that it is very scary that I am a strong woman and that I’m more knowledgeable than they are. Sometimes they think I’m more masculine than they are; but some of them think it’s really cool, and they want to know more about it.”
In the meantime, she said she is still getting used to peoples’ reactions at crime scenes when she takes her helmet off.
“When I’m at a scene dealing with a bomb and I’m in full gear, people can’t differentiate whether I’m a woman or a man,” she explained.
“They just see a bomb disposal expert. But as soon as I take my helmet off and they see my hair fall down and they realize I’m a woman, they have a slight and immediate shock.”
“A lot of people are immediately supportive and positively surprised,” she added. “It gives me a positive feeling.”
Indeed, Pekerman said the best part of her job is the response she elicits from the public after she arrives to ensure they remain safe.
“When there is a suspicious object, the public is concerned,” she said.
“Then, as soon as I arrive at the scene, the public fully understands that I’m in control of the situation by making the area safe. The sense of security that I give to people makes my day.”
Asked if the 2008 Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker – about the harrowing experiences of an emotionally unstable bomb disposal specialist during the Iraq War – had an impact on her, Pekerman smiled and nodded.
“I saw the movie for the first time when I got accepted into the bomb disposal course, and it was really exciting,” she said of the classic, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
“But at the end of the course, I watched it again and I understood that there were a lot of things in the movie that were unrealistic as far as Israel is concerned. In Israel, we don’t work like the [protagonist]; we work very professionally and very safely to protect ourselves, and protect the surrounding areas where we work.”
Pekerman continued: “In the movie, it’s a war zone, and here we’re talking about a civilian population, which is completely different in many ways.”
To date, Pekerman has responded to multiple terrorist attacks, primarily outside the Old City, including several attacks on the same day.
“One day, we had three attacks in Jerusalem within two hours,” she recounted.
During any given attack, Pekerman said she and her team are meticulous in ensuring the terrorist is not carrying, or has surreptitiously planted, explosives in the surrounding area.
She was part of the team that safely detonated two pipe bombs left outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate last February by terrorists who took the life of Border Police Cpl. Hadar Cohen, 19.
With respect to her treatment by male colleagues, Pekerman described an egalitarian work environment, that she claims is devoid of sexism.
“There’s no difference whatsoever in the way I’m looked upon,” she said. “I receive the exact same treatment as any other bomb disposal expert that works in the field. And I am very well respected in the same way as my male colleagues.”
Asked what she would say to girls and young women who may want to pursue a career in a highly competitive, male-dominated field such as hers, Pekerman emphasized self-empowerment.
“First of all, believe in yourself,” she said. “If you think you can, then you can. If you think you can’t, then you can’t. As soon as you believe in yourself, then people will believe in you, and then you can get to any place you want to reach.”
“The message I want to convey to women,” she continued, “is that what you want to achieve, you are capable of achieving. And when the door is closed, you can open it. And if the door doesn’t open, you can come in through the window.”
“Go and make your dream come true,” Pekerman added.