When will female IDF soldiers see the inside of a tank?

All of us were willing to give our all to our army service and now we’re being told that we’re not good enough because we’re girls’

SHIRYON FIGHTERS.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
(photo credit: FLASH90)
The integration of female soldiers in the IDF Armored Corps became a hot topic of debate between Israeli rabbis who oppose the enlistment of women in combat roles and female soldiers who are demanding equality and the option to make use of their capabilities to the full extent during their mandatory IDF service.
A few months ago, two young Israeli women who are about to enlist in the IDF submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding that they be allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Armored Corps, known as Shiryon in Hebrew.
“I’ve been aspiring to serve as a tank commander for years,” says Or Abramson, one of the petitioners. “That is the role in which I feel I can best use my talents and skills to contribute to the IDF. Of course, there are other positions in which I would also perform very well, but I do not wish to compromise on this issue. It doesn’t make sense to me why a soldier who is so highly motivated to give of herself to the army should be refused a certain position because of her gender. The rationale behind this petition is not personal – it’s about promoting equality for all Israeli women serving in the IDF.”
Abramson and Maayan Halberstadt, both of whom are 19-and-a-half years old, met at a pre-military preparatory program (mechina) they attended last year called Halutz. Afterwards, they both continued on for the volunteer segment of the program, and today live in Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava.
“My main question is why they are preventing me from serving in Shiryon,” says Halberstadt. “The boys here at the mechina will enlist in Shiryon all together in the same unit, and it doesn’t make any sense that I can’t join them. All positions in the IDF should be open to soldiers who prove they are fit for that job, regardless of gender. This is pure discrimination.”
WHEN ALICE Miller petitioned the High Court of Justice in 1995, they ruled that there was no justification for preventing women from applying to the IDF pilot training course. Since then, only a relatively small number of mixed units have been created.
In July 2017, a pilot program was created in the Shiryon, whose goal was to investigate whether female soldiers should be integrated into the brigade and take part in the active protection of Israel’s borders. In June 2018, the pilot program was deemed a success, and history was made on the day that four female IDF soldiers completed the tank commander training course. However, a few months later, in April 2019, the IDF announced that in the end, it would not be integrating female combat soldiers into Shiryon.
The official rationale was that “in assessing the situation of Shiryon units in the field, it emerged that the next phase of introducing female soldiers to Shiryon would require a significant increase in manpower and infrastructure. As a result, it was decided that for now, female combat soldiers would continue to serve in existing mixed combat units, but that new ones would not be created.”
In addition, the IDF claimed that there were limited financial resources available to start such a program, and that not enough suitable candidates had been identified to participate, making it unviable. As a result of the cancellation of the program, the four female soldiers were deployed as training instructors instead of as tank commanders. The pilot program, which had been backed by former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, brought with it a wave of protests from prominent Zionist rabbis in Israel.
“We were so incredibly disappointed when we heard the pilot program was being halted for budgetary reasons,” recalls Abramson. “We went to such great lengths to help get this program going, and now all of that time and effort has been washed down the drain. Every self-respecting country needs to pay a price to achieve equality. Basic rights for its citizens do not come easily. I’ve yet to hear a reasonable excuse for this flagrant act of discrimination. I understand the complications it creates for religious male soldiers, but the female soldiers are extremely highly motivated, and I don’t agree with the concern that it will lead to dysfunction. This is a mistaken view and it brings into question the soldiers’ professionalism.”
Abramson and Halberstadt, who are slated to enlist in the IDF in March 2020, were shocked by the IDF’s backtracking on the original decision to enable female combat soldiers to serve in Shiryon.
“My whole life I’ve been dreaming of serving in a combat unit, and so when I was a teenager and I heard that girls would be allowed to serve in Shiryon, I was so excited,” recalls Abramson. “I’ve been assigned to serve as a combat soldier in the IDF Search and Rescue Brigade, but I want to do more than that, and not just stay within Israel’s borders. I want to serve just like the men and to do everything like they do. Tanks are the first soldiers to enter the battlefield and can be the determining factor in the outcome of a war. That’s just incredible.”
“Boys have so many options to pick from when they’re getting ready to enlist in the army, including serving in elite combat units. Girls, on the other hand, have extremely limited options,” says Halberstadt. “Shiryon offers a much more unique experience. My skills are more suitable to serving in tanks than in infantry. The Shiryon pilot was successful. I don’t accept the claim that the pilot program was too costly. This is infuriating and insulting. All of us were willing to give our all to our army service and now we’re being told that we’re not good enough because we’re girls. I’m angry about the discrimination caused by the rabbis, the chief of staff and the prime minister.”
THE MEDIA attention they’ve received since they petitioned the High Court has not deterred them.
“We will continue pushing until justice has been served,” asserts Abramson. “Equality is the most important value in my opinion. It’s not just that I personally want this position – I want it to be available to all the female soldiers in the future. The problem is society teaches girls from a young age that there are things that girls can’t do. But I don’t think anyone has the right to make those decisions. If a woman is aware of the dangers involved, and she still desires to take on these responsibilities, then she should be able to make that decision by herself.”
Abramson and Halberstadt hired the services of advocates Yanur Bertenel and Amichai Weinberger.
“I have two grown daughters at home, who in many respects are more capable than most men. How is it that we tell our girls that they can participate in the pilot training course, and that the sky is the limit, but then turn around and tell them that combat positions in Shiryon are out of the question? It’s infuriating,” insists Weinberger.
“The four female tank commanders successfully completed both the advanced training (Tsamap) and the commander’s course, which is one of the most challenging and most difficult courses in the IDF,” explains Berental. “The chief Shiryon officer fully supported their integration, and expressed his amazement at their exceptional capabilities. We would have a different attitude if they hadn’t excelled in these courses, but they did.”
“In response to people who claim that the inclusion of female combat soldiers is not a financially sound decision, I would say that there are quite a large number of decisions made in the IDF that do not make sense from a monetary point of view. Officials keep going on about how introducing women combatants inside the tanks will be detrimental to Israel’s security due to economic considerations, and to that claim I respond that the IDF can allocate funds wherever it sees fit, and according to this logic, women won’t be given any roles in the army,” adds Weinberger.
“I’ve read everything that has any mention of Alice Miller, which gives me hope that at some point that can happen again,” concedes Abramson.
 “As a result of her efforts, so many more positions in the IDF have been opened up to women. It’s a shame that people like Minister Bezalel Smotrich claim that female soldiers weaken the IDF. They don’t understand that there are so many young Israeli women who are extremely highly motivated who would be a great asset to the IDF in combat positions. There’s no connection between motivation and gender. It’s such a shame that such discrimination still exists. It’s statements like this that drive me to keep fighting for our rights.”
THE IDF is scheduled to respond to Abramson and Halberstadt’s petition by the end of 2019. Because these types of cases progress slowly, it’s unlikely that either of them will personally reap the benefits of their great efforts before they enlist in the IDF.
“This is much bigger than just the two of us,” explains Halberstadt, “and we might not see any progress before we enlist in the springtime. I mean, I’m still keeping my hopes up, but even if it doesn’t help us, I’ll continue fighting so that others can benefit. And wherever I’m placed, I will fulfill my role to the best of my abilities. What’s important to me is that Israel’s army helps bring about a reality in which girls believe that they are capable of doing anything they set their mind to do. It’s my hope that in the future, girls won’t have to fight for the right to serve in Shiryon combat roles.
“Our goal is for girls to know that they have equal status, and that they are capable even if other people tell them they’re not. It makes me sad to see that 25 years after Alice Miller won her case, we’re still fighting for our rights,” Halberstadt said. “Alice broke through the glass ceiling, and we’re here to help open it a little bit more. We will enlist in whatever combat position is open to us, and we will serve our country with pride, but it’s not over until it’s over.”
The IDF spokesperson responded, “The IDF will analyze the petition and an official state response will be submitted to the court according to procedure.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.