Women at war

With a prominent spokeswoman and more female reserve officers called up, is the IDF going soft?

seminar 298 (photo credit: Courtesy of Aluma)
seminar 298
(photo credit: Courtesy of Aluma)
Dr. Marina Kaminsky made headlines two weeks ago when she became the first Israeli woman to join combat troops fighting in Lebanon. Serving in the medical corps, Kaminsky was right there on hand in the battle for Bint Jbail, providing immediate medical care to the soldiers from Tank Squadron 52, Brigade 401, to which she belongs. "I work inside a 'tankbulance' - a mini-ambulance where we treat the sick on the battlefield," explains Kaminsky in an interview from her home in the center of the country, where she was taking a one-day respite on Sunday from the fighting. "I did not know there would be a war of this kind but I could not abandon my soldiers. We are like a family, I am like a mother to them. "I was the first woman in Lebanon for this war," continues the 31-year-old, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 2000, adding quickly, "but I want to make sure we also remember the other doctors who are men, who do the most amazing work. It is not important if they are men or women, we must remember their work, too, and not just mine." Kaminsky points out several times during the interview that gender roles play no part in the brave work of Israel's heroes out on the battlefield, though she does admit that becoming a combat soldier or climbing to any high rank in the army is quite an achievement for a woman in an institution that only started allowing women into such units six years ago. "It is much harder for a woman," concedes Kaminsky. She herself joined the Israel Defense Forces eight months ago, bringing with her vast experience from her country of birth, where she learned medicine in a military academy. "There were other women on the officer's course," she says. "I am not the first woman to be in the armored corps." While it is true that Kaminsky is not Israel's first female combat soldier, one aspect being highlighted in the current war is the growing number of older women - either career officers or reservists - still dedicating their time to the army. Until 2001, the only women to serve in reserve duty were those who had spent their compulsory service in the medical corps. Since 2000, when the Knesset passed a law stating that female soldiers were allowed to serve in combat units, many more women have trained in highly technical roles, acquiring skills that are needed even after they've left the army. Today, more women than ever serve in the army as reservists or career soldiers. THIS IS THE first time during a war situation that the IDF has a woman as its spokesperson, notes Haifa University sociologist Professor Oz Almog. "[Miri Regev] is already becoming a symbol of this particular war," says Almog. "The fact that she serves as a spokeswoman bridging the gap between the IDF and the public is a very important means to managing this war. She is one of the main figures in the media today." Forty-year-old Brig. Gen. Miri Regev, a mother of three, became the 15th IDF spokesperson just over a year ago, following on from the first female spokesperson Ruth Meron, also a mother, who served from 2002. This might be good news for women who want to succeed in the army, continues Almog. However, he cautions, "many people, including myself, see her as a complete failure. Not because she is a woman, but because she does not project the firmness that one expects from this role." He adds that while Regev is very charming, many people factor in a person's gender when they talk about failure. "It particularly applies to females," he says. "People tend to explain failure that way; when it is males they look for other reasons. This could affect the image of female officers in the eye of the Israeli public." It has been an uphill battle for women to get into battle since the 2000 law allowing women to serve in combat units. While many more roles, such as those involving manning surveillance equipment, radars, operating cameras and positions in intelligence, have opened up for women in recent years, according to Bar-Ilan University sociologist and gender studies expert Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, women still only make up about one third of the army, and most end up serving in traditional female positions. "When we talk about percentages, the IDF is quite good compared to other armies, but when you look closer you see that most women are in feminine roles such as secretaries, administers, social workers, nurses or teachers," says Sasson-Levy, who studied female soldiers in combat units for a recently published paper entitled "Feminism and Military Gender Practices: Israeli Women Soldiers in Masculine Roles." While much has been written for or against women's right to serve in combat units, little research has been done into women who continue to serve after their compulsory service has ended, either as career soldiers or in the reserves, she says. "People don't know about the women who serve in the reserves," says Sasson-Levy. AND IN THE IDF Spokesperson's unit, they had a difficult job finding older women who either still served in the army or returned periodically for the reserves to be interviewed for this story. Figures and facts illustrating the numbers who still served were also difficult to come by, they said after almost a week of researching. Sasson-Levy points to one of the few research studies conducted on the subject by Zev Lerer for the military journal Marachot, which is widely considered to be the most informative and authoritative of all IDF publications. The results, which were published in 2004, found that 160 women served in the reserves in 2002 and suggested that female reservists served an average of 19 days a year. Furthermore, Sasson-Levy highlights research by a colleague who found that the army held a long list of women who had yet to be assigned a reserve unit. "In general, of course, the military is a masculine organization. After nationality, among Jews, gender is the most important organizing principal guiding factor," points out Sasson-Levy. "There is a big difference from 10 years ago, but women still have a hard time getting promoted and still hold ranks five lower than those at the top. It is an organization structured by men for men. Women will always be at the bottom." When Sasson-Levy began her research into women combat soldiers, she thought that allowing women to participate in such units would guarantee them full citizenship and full citizens rights just like men, but after completing the paper she says she has changed her mind completely. Raising women's status in the army won't bring equality, she says. "[Women in combat units] completely copied the way men walked, dressed and talked, including cursing and their treatment of other women." "They distance themselves from femininity," she continues cynically. "They talk terribly about other women, call them pathetic, crybabies and trivialize sexual harassment. They do not help to change the system and will never work for women's interests." HOWEVER, to women such as Kaminsky and the Israeli army's first aerial scout, First Sergeant Sheli, 24, the significance of being women in a male dominated environment is not lost, and both share the aspirations of many single women of their age group. "I am still not married," says Kaminsky. "However, I do have a serious boyfriend and we are talking about getting married soon. He is very supportive of what I do." Sheli, who is not allowed to disclose her family name for security reasons, echoes this thought. "Guys are always very impressed," she says. "My boyfriend is for it and very supportive of what I do. It is part of me and of who I am." Sheli, who was born and raised in Haifa to Australian immigrant parents, has spent one day a week in reserve duty since her compulsory military service ended nearly two years ago. She was called up for service in the first few days of the current war. "I am in charge of the very hi-tech cameras used on the airplanes and the real time intelligence. What you hear on the news [about events in Lebanon], there is a big chance that we were involved," says Sheli, who flies in a Beechcraft as part of an all-male team. "Some girls go to the hairdressers once a week; I go to the army." Sheli served in the army for three and a half years, longer than the standard 21 months required for women's army service. "I wanted to do something significant," she says. "I took lots of exams, many physical tests, computer assignments and even a seven-day gibush, or initiation program, which was complete hell and very traumatic." Though she was one of the few women accepted onto the prestigious pilots course, Sheli decided that was not the path she wanted to follow and looked around for something else. "Then came the opportunity to train in the aerial scout unit," says Sheli, adding, "I wanted there to be more women in the course and made sure, before I left, that there would be more girls." As for any difficulties she encountered being the only female in an all-male unit, Sheli admits there were hardships. "Not physically or in the training, but I felt I had to prove myself to the men and train harder than them," she says. While not a problem right now, Sheli agrees that the on-going service could become more difficult as she gets older and wants to move on with her life. "I have to do reserve duty until I'm 38 or until I have my first child, after that it will be voluntary," she says, while explaining that she has plans to study psychology and economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev starting in September. "To do reserve duty and leave everything when I'm a student or have to work might become a pain eventually." VALERIE BARUCH, a nurse in the emergency room at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital-Ein Kerem, is waiting to see if she will get called up for duty in the next few days. "Even though I turned 38 a few weeks ago, I still have yet to receive my release papers from the army," says Baruch, who made aliya from France at the age of 18. She joined the army when she was already 23 and served as a nurse in the medical corps. She has been committed to reserve duty ever since she finished her service more than 13 years ago. The last time she had a call-up was six years ago, when she was 32. "I do not see the point of doing reserve duty at my age," she says. "In the army, they don't talk, they just give orders. I sent them a letter trying to explain to them that I should not do it, that my work in the hospital was not something I could just leave, but I haven't heard back from them." "We were trained in how to open an emergency hospital in the field," she explains, adding that most of her call-ups involved one-day training exercises to remind the reserves of what to do during a war situation. Baruch realizes that her expertise in the field is an extremely valuable skill, however she does not believe, she says, that a woman of 38 should still be called up for military service when there are plenty of younger women who could also be trained. "I do not understand what they want from me at my age," she says. Fifty-five-year-old Col. Irit Atzmon has a different take on being called up for reserve duty. "It is an integral part of me," says the mother of one who was called up for reserve duty last week. "When they call me up to come in, I volunteer right away." Atzmon, a former deputy IDF Spokeswoman who is currently responsible for liaising with the foreign press, has left behind her work as a company director for Essence of Life, a self-help program that helps people find their inner peace. She sees no irony between what she does in her day-to-day life and explaining Israel's military action to the scores of foreign journalists who enjoy picking Israel's army to pieces. "It is easy for me to convey the message of what is happening," she says in soothing tones. "What is happening to our citizens in the North is terrible, it is like a ghost town. From Kiryat Shmona to Karmiel, there are less cars, everywhere is empty." Atzmon - who became a familiar face during last year's evacuation from Gaza - says she feels that doing her duty for the army specifically coincides with her calling. "All human beings have a heart and care about each other. Even when we were in Gaza last year, I showed the foreign press that all sides have their own feelings and we cannot judge one another. We have to try and understand each other," explains Atzmon, who has spent time as a military attach in London and has a background in speech therapy and audiology. "We are justified in this battle and we have no other choice. It's not difficult to speak about it. It is implausible that our people cannot get on with their daily lives because of the rocket attacks. Hizbullah is a terrorist organization that wants to disrupt the whole world." As for rising to such a high-profile position and returning to it time and again throughout the years, Atzmon says, "I really feel that I can do something to contribute. I paved my way in the most honest manner possible and I have always felt very accepted as a person. "As a woman, there are a great deal of advantages," she continues. "The IDF is male dominated, but there are places that women can contribute with their open hearts and different interpretations: Women have a great deal to offer the army and are crucial. Men look at situations in a very direct way, while women are very thorough and look at it from all the different angles."