As Israel Debates Women in Combat Again, 75-year-old Letter Has a Familiar Ring

An op-ed that turned up in the archives points to the multi-front war faced by female soldiers, accused of 'confusion and corrupted morals'

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The Auxiliary Corps for women in the British Army, in 1942.
The Auxiliary Corps for women in the British Army, in 1942.Credit: The collection of photographs of Zoltan Kluger / State Archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In a fiery op-ed penned 75 years ago by female volunteers from Mandatory Palestine serving in the British army during World War II, they shed light on the disdain directed towards these young women not only by men, but also women, and namely the first female reporter in the country.

“I still can’t believe what I’m reading; how could comrade Bracha Habas write such hurtful words?” wrote the female volunteers in response to an article published by the now-defunct Hebrew-language newspaper Davar. In that article, the late senior female journalist Bracha Habas had dug into the "dissolute conduct" of a young unnamed female soldier she had met in Cairo, characterizing the isolated incident as indicative of widespread "corrupted morals."

The volunteers sent their fiery response letter on August 22, 1945 from Cairo, where they were stationed as volunteers in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The letter reveals the routine contempt, humiliation and vilification that these soldiers experienced, and points to the pain and outrage they must have felt when condemned by a female reporter, motivating them to write the letter.

Decades later, the letter was found this week at the Gnazim Institute archive of the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel. The timing is uncanny, as the issue of women in the military is once again, or rather still, in the news.

The Auxiliary Corps for women in the British Army, in 1942.Credit: The collection of photographs of Zoltan Kluger / State Archives

On Monday, the High Court of Justice heard a petition brought by young woman against the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, demanding that they be allowed to be screen for the military's most elite combat units.

“A meeting I had last night on a busy Cairo street has been bothering me,” wrote Habas. “I met by chance a petite woman from the Land of Israel, from a rural settlement. She was a soldier, but in civilian clothing. From the short conversation we had I realized what confusion and corrupted morals this girl had experienced, having landed in the midst of the roaring atmosphere of the army and the Orient,” she added.

Habas recounted a trip with the female soldier and her “sweetheart," an American soldier she was with, to an American airbase “where the woman obviously feels at home, a welcome night guest.” She noted that the soldier’s dissolute conduct felt like a “blow,” and quoted the young female soldier as having said “The other girls are angry with me; it’s only because they’re bursting with envy.”

On the basis of this isolated incident, the Davar journalist made various generalizations, concluding that the woman was “one of the symbols of the sacrifices we’ve made in this war… the woman disappeared with her sweetheart between the barracks of that foreign camp. She’s only 20 years old. She was seventeen when she first donned a uniform.”

Recruitment poster for the Women's Auxiliary Corps (ATS) in the British Army from 1945.Credit: Government Press Office

The authors of the op-ed demanded an apology. “It would be interesting to see if Bracha would pass judgment on Tel Aviv women after one meeting on Hayarkon Street,” they wrote, hinting at the fact that promiscuous behavior exists on the home front as well. “Why did she add one more bitter drop to all the sorrow and insults we are so often subjected to?” they wondered, describing all the insults heaped upon them during their years of service.

“We volunteered based on the demands of our nation, in recognition of our higher capacities, and our utmost convictions which demanded that we go,” they wrote. “With all the encouragement we received from institutions and a few friends, we were hurt by many, our lives poisoned. The arrows of contempt and disdain came from male soldiers and from part of the general community. We gritted our teeth and continued working hard, thinking to respond to our detractors in that manner. How could Habas write her impressions after meeting one unnamed soldier in Cairo, after a chance encounter with such a negative character? It would have been better to file this meeting in one’s heart, or at least not bring it as an example of a Jewish soldier in Cairo” they added.

As if to add insult to injury, Habas' follow-up article describes her meeting with female ATS volunteers in Italy. Those women, she wrote, behaved appropriately. In their spare time, they knitted and embroidered.

Although Davar editors waited a month before publishing the female soldiers’ op-ed, they were quick to respond: "The sensitivity of the female soldiers is understandable, but their emotional excitement in this case is unjustified. Neither comrade Bracha Habas nor the Davar editors intended to impugn the dignity of our comrades in uniform, whose actions are gloriously notable.”

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