Is the IDF Ready for Women in Combat?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

1. The committee

It appears that the approximately 1,500 female fighters in the Israel Defense Forces owe the new and exciting possibilities open to them to one man in particular: Brigadier General (res.) Nir Galili. In 1999, then chief of staff Shaul Mofaz sought to promote Galili to the rank of major general. Mofaz, who was still new on the job and lacking political understanding, failed to predict the public outcry this promotion would cause. A few years earlier, Galili, who was the commander of the Tze'elim base, got himself into trouble by having sex with a female clerk who served as his assistant. A disciplinary hearing convicted Galili of exploiting his position of authority, adding a blot to his record that in the old IDF would not have been reason enough to preclude his chances of promotion.

But times had changed; with the assistance of women's rights organizations, the clerk petitioned the High Court of Justice and Galili's appointment was revoked. The defeated and surprised chief of staff needed a quick change of image - for himself and for the IDF. The Galili affair, which received wide media coverage, seriously damaged Mofaz. A solution was rapidly concocted and the chief of staff began appointing a series of female officers to key positions. At its peak, there were no less than 14 female officers in the IDF with the rank of colonel, though the promise to promote a woman to the rank of major general has yet to be fulfilled.

At the same time, the army increasingly began to integrate women into combat and combat support roles. The opening salvo had been fired about three years earlier when Alice Miller petitioned the High Court. As a result, the justices compelled the bastion of military chauvinism, the pilots' training course, to open its doors to women. Mofaz significantly increased the number of positions open to women. One after another, the taboos were broken.

The media enthusiastically cooperated with the spirit of progress. The grumblings of some commanders about female troops who don't meet the physical and professional demands of their jobs and about problems with cohesion in the unit were perceived as primitive mutterings destined to become a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, a group of determined, senior female officers continued to forge ahead. While the men were bogged down in the territories and in Lebanon, the head officers of the Women's Corps (the job title was recently changed to Advisor to the Chief of Staff on Women's Affairs, or Yohalan, in the Hebrew acronym) remained focused on the target. Brigadier Generals Orit Adato, Suzy Yogev, Devora Hasid and the current advisor, Brigadier General Yehudit Grisaro, all sought to further the integration of women as combat troops. "The general staff just couldn't keep track," one of the women admits today. "We carried out a revolution right under their noses." Only recently, a committee has been appointed, headed by Major General (res.) Yehuda Segev, to closely examine the matter of women's military service. Instead of the patchwork approach of the past decade, Segev is trying for the first time to formulate a clearly defined policy on the issue.

For those opposed to the move, this marks the first opportunity to present an orderly objection to the trend fostered by several advisors to the chief of staff on women's affairs. Last week the Segev Committee met for another session, its sixth to date. On the agenda was a presentation that had already aroused sharp reactions during previous showings at other military forums. It is a document authored by several reservist officers, most of them religious.

In the past, the arguments against women serving in combat positions focused on the point of view of the religious soldier, who felt that he was being forced into intimate proximity with women under immodest circumstances. This time round, the arguments are much more sophisticated. The authors of the presentation collected material from a large array of sources, in Israel and abroad, that cast doubt on the usefulness of integrating women into combat. Bottom line, it's a blunt and learned attack on the sacred axioms of political correctness.

In the past, the IDF considered the armies of the United States and Britain as role models. But, in recent years, the policy of accepting women to combat roles has been receding in both these militaries. Thus, a 2002 report from the British Ministry of Defense notes that the army acknowledges that women may constitute a risk to effectiveness in battle. American law prohibits the integration of women in combat or combat support units below the brigade level. In 2002, the U.S. canceled combined basic training for men and women.

Other arguments against integration: The difficulty women have in carrying out the demanding physical tasks - the foremost of which is carrying heavy weights; the high frequency of injuries among female fighters (especially stress fractures); the modification of criteria in IDF units for the purpose of integrating more women; the introduction of sexual tension into combat frameworks; and the adverse effect on a unit's operational performance when put to the real test. So far, though, the evidence does not add up to a very weighty argument. There is just a collection of claims about poor performance or anxiety exhibited by female officers and soldiers during fighting in Gaza and Lebanon.

The central argument advanced by opponents is more interesting. The policy of the Yohalan, they say, was adopted without an orderly thought process or analysis. First the arrow was shot and then the target was marked around it. The IDF did not conduct an in-depth examination of what was happening in other armies or of the move's potential effects. Nor do the authors of the presentation shy from embarking on what might be called a witch hunt. They cite a number of statements by academic researchers who participated in studies initiated by the Yohalan. Some of these scholars have signed petitions supporting refusal to serve and opposing the war in Lebanon. The authors' conclusion: A "radical feminist" faction overtook military thought regarding the integration of female fighters, without the general staff's knowledge.

Elaine Donnelly is certainly no radical feminist. Quite the contrary. Opponents of the integration of female combat troops in the IDF frequently cite Donnelly, an American researcher who heads a conservative Washington organization called The Center for Military Preparedness. In the early 1990s, Donnelly was a member of the Presidential Commission appointed by President George Bush, Sr. to examine the issue of women in combat. Her research took her to some extraordinary places, from flying in a fighter jet to observing a training session regarding captivity of female pilots, which included a scenario simulating rape in captivity.

"In the collision between the needs of the army and equality for women, the army has to get priority," she told Haaretz. Donnelly read interviews with the various Yohalan officers and concluded that the IDF tends toward more of an extreme than the British and American armies. "Their priorities are confused. The frequent use of feminist expressions gives rise to demoralization among the male fighters. This kind of attitude can have an adverse effect on volunteering for combat units. It's important not to break the unit's cohesion and the soldiers' trust in the command hierarchy. Without them, there's no discipline. It's just a bunch of people with weapons."

Lowering standards to integrate female fighters detracts from a unit's preparedness for the reality of battle, she says. "The result is that lives will be lost and missions will be harmed. If the tendency promoted by the Yohalan is accepted, military culture will change. They're trying to make the army gentler and more sensitive, but this is the only army you've got. There is no substitute for it."

Her solution: A return to the Miller High Court petition, i.e., preventing discrimination in admitting women to courses, but not their mass integration into front-line units. "A man can lug 45 kilos and march 30 kilometers. Load that on a female body and what you get are broken bones."

These arguments don't impress the Yohalan officers. "The Americans' findings aren't necessarily the word of God," says one senior officer. "The United States is not a source for comparison because there you have a professional-volunteer army. The IDF is the only army in the world that drafts women by law. It's too early to talk about the arguments concerning physiological capabilities, since we're in the midst of a comprehensive study that won't be completed for another year. There are many combat destinations that have not yet been opened to women, such as the armored corps, the infantry and special units. I expect that some will open [to women] in the future, but already women are serving as combat soldiers in a large number of roles.

"The real test is what the commanders have to say. Ask any anti-aircraft battalion commander if he'd give up the women under his command and he'd say no. People should be given assignments according to their contribution and not according to gender. On the other hand, a woman should not be certified as a fighter if she is incapable of performing the task. Coed training is necessary and there is no reason to backtrack from it. A religious soldier who is bothered by it can serve in a male-only framework. 150 years ago, people thought that admitting women to universities would destroy academia. We've come some way since then."

And what about the arguments concerning the radical views of some of the researchers? "What's going on there is an underhanded attempt to de-legitimize them. It doesn't even deserve a response."



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