Military glass ceiling: Highest ranks of IDF still closed off to women

Unlike the Shin Bet, the IDF has not opened its top ranks to female officers

Female soldier, Lotem Stapleton, a physical education officer, demonstrates a move during a training session in Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense technique, at a military base in the Golan Heights March 1, 2017. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Female soldier, Lotem Stapleton, a physical education officer, demonstrates a move during a training session in Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense technique, at a military base in the Golan Heights March 1, 2017.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
THREE-QUARTERS THROUGH his term, Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is ending his third year in office, preparing the ground for his departure at the end of 2018. In recent months, he has appointed and promoted new high-ranking officers who will serve as the leadership of the next generation of the Israel Defense Forces. Towering above them all is the appointment of Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman to be the next chief of Aman, the Military Intelligence Directorate, which is the largest and the most significant body in the entire Israeli intelligence community. Together with the commander of the Israel Air Force, the head of military intelligence is one of the most prestigious and important positions in the IDF. Heiman currently serves as the commander of IDF colleges and commander of the Northern Corps. He will replace outgoing Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, who will become the new commander of Southern Command and will be among the leading candidates to replace Eisenkot when he ends his four-year term.
Usually the IDF's top echelon nominations are a smooth process and, despite some personal disappointments, by this or that officer who was passed over and not promoted, they are generally accepted.
But this time there is a feeling that Eisenkot may have failed in his decision. Since he entered office, the chief of staff has not found a suitable female officer to be promoted to the rank of major general and included in the all-male closed club of the IDF General Staff.
Happy Women"s Day from the IDF (YouTube/Israel Defense Forces)
The General Staff, which is the supreme body of the IDF, consists of 19 major generals and one lieutenant general (the chief of staff). Unlike many other countries in the world, where there are four- and five-star generals, the IDF has one lieutenant general, major generals and brigadier generals.
Since its independence almost 70 years ago, only one woman was promoted to the rank of major general. It was in 2011 when Orna Barbivai took up her post as head of the IDF Human Resources Directorate. She retired from service after three years in 2014. Some 30% of all IDF soldiers – conscripts in the regular army and professionals in the standing army – are women. However, they are misrepresented when it comes to high-ranking positions. Female lieutenant colonels represent only 14% of the total number in the IDF. There are only 32 female colonels (8%) and even fewer brigadiers general – seven (7.5% of the total). Very few of them are in commanding posts and even fewer in field units. The most prominent among them are Brig.-Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham, who is the chief censor (for local and foreign-based media), Brig.-Gen. Ariella Lazrovitch, chief financial adviser to the chief of staff, and Orly Merkman, deputy chief justice of the Military Court of Appeals (the IDF’s Supreme Court). But he has never promoted a woman to the rank of major general.
It is true that Eisenkot is very attentive to gender issues. He has fearlessly fought cases of sexual abuse and did not hesitate to fire even senior officers, including one brigadier general (Ofek Buchris) for abusing their power and taking sexual advantage of their subordinates.
Eisenkot is also known for his stamina and determination not to succumb to political pressure from right-wing circles to impose their conservative norms and values on the IDF, in general, and in regard to the service of women, in particular.
Rightists led by Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, which is a part of the current coalition, have been involved in several attempts to reduce the service of women in the IDF. They and their rabbis oppose the idea of women serving in combat units and have tried to prevent the creation of mixed battalions, arguing that it will increase promiscuity and is against Jewish tradition. But Eisenkot stood like a rock against these trends and repelled them. The IDF has a few female combat pilots and navigators – one of them is the deputy commander of a flight squadron. It has several women combat officers in its ground forces and some brilliant intelligence officers, mainly among low- and middle-rank levels. But in an era of women’s empowerment, it is not enough and disappointing.
Eisenkot and the IDF can learn from the civilian intelligence organizations of the Mossad (the foreign espionage agency) and the Shin Bet, the domestic security agency. While the IDF has tens of thousands of servicemen and women, only a few thousand serve in the Mossad and Shin Bet. (The ex- act figures are classified.) The highest-ranking official ever in the Mossad was Aliza Magen who was deputy chief of the organization. It was 20 years ago. Today, two women serve in the Mossad’s top body, which comprises heads of departments. One is the head of human resources and the other one recently promoted to lead the department in charge of all Mossad schools and courses preparing cadets and newly recruited agents, as well as high-ranking officers. They hold ranks equivalent to that of major general in the IDF. Indeed, it is very impressive but not nearly sufficient. Even in the Mossad, women still have a long way to go to break the glass ceiling, and it will happen only when we see a woman commanding one of the operational departments of the agency in charge of intelligence-gathering, recruiting and running agents, and special operations in the field.
In response, the Mossad told The Jerusalem Report: “There are talented women in the Mossad. They lead and influence in areas of operations, technology, intelligence and organizational headquarters. They are interwoven in all the command levels. We have recently put special emphasis on recruiting more women and integrating them in all departments and professions.”
Because of the secrecy surrounding the work of intelligence agencies, it is hard to make a definitive evaluation, but it seems that the most advanced body in Israel’s security establishments when it comes to women is the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency. The integration of women in the agency is across the board and manifested in all units, at the level of headquarters as well as in the field of operations. In the past, there were a few women who served with the equivalent rank of major general in the top body of the organization – the Staff Forum. Currently there are three women who serve as heads of large sub- departments of cyberspace, technology and the research unit.
One-quarter of the agency's managers are women who are involved in all its professional fields and dimensions: investigations, intelligence, technology, VIP protection, human resources, operating agents and legal matters. Yet it is hard to envision in a militarized male-dominated society like Israel that one day soon a woman might be head of the Mossad or Shin Bet, as was the case in the UK, when 20 years ago Stella Rimington was selected to be the head of MI5.