As More Female Israeli Soldiers Pick Up Guns, More Men Take on Softer Roles

Increasing numbers of women are taking up jobs like piloting planes and staffing artillery pieces, as men try their hand at clerking and welfare roles. The two-decade-old reform continues

Nadia Bartman, a driver in the Northern Command, April 2017.
Rami Shllush

As the Israel Defense Forces opens more and more positions to women, jobs traditionally staffed by women are opening up to men regardless what critics on the religious right say. In the last 20 years the number of positions filled by both sexes has increased threefold, the IDF says.

"In general, the direction is to have as many positions as possible filled by both men and women,” a female officer in the Manpower Directorate says. “Wherever men’s physical advantage doesn’t come into play, we’re going to have women as well.”

In 1998 only 13 percent of soldiers’ professions were classified as “mixed.” A decade later, the number was 29 percent, reaching one-third today.

When Avi Abadi, 20, was offered the job of welfare NCO in the paratroopers’ new company for ultra-Orthodox Jews, he thought his commander was joking.

Until a few years ago, a welfare NCO in the army was almost unheard of, and even today 95 percent of them are women. But the army is now striving to provide suitable jobs for its growing number of ultra-Orthodox men.

The military website for youths before recruitment still refers to “positions for men” and “positions for women,” even if most of these posts are for both sexes. A new recruits’ company commander, a sailor, a programmer or a clerk can be either a man or a woman, and the number of gender-specific roles in the IDF is much smaller than it was in the ‘90s.

Clerking is a good example. Only 20 years ago, 94 percent of clerks in the IDF were women, a number that by 2008 had dropped to 71 percent before easing to two-thirds today.

Avi Abadi, a welfare NCO in the Israeli army, April 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Officers told Haaretz that today there’s nothing unusual in a man being in charge of a senior officer’s office.

“At first it felt very strange. Everyone calls you a secretary,” says Omer, who served as a clerk at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. “The first question people ask is why didn’t you go into combat service, but then you find that it doesn’t really matter – because everyone who asks that didn’t go into combat service either.”

As Omer puts it, “At first they told me to make coffee, schedule meetings, buy refreshments for birthdays,” but after he won his commander’s confidence he became his confidant.

Tough female army sergeants

“Today no position is restricted to women only,” the female officer says, even if she doesn’t see the number of male clerks increasing to parity with female clerks. The army’s policy is still to send soldiers with suitable physical profiles to combat duties; those with lower physical abilities go to technical and administrative positions.

“If a man has a low physical profile, it doesn’t matter what job he does, and certainly when he has certain restrictions, like having to serve close to home, there’s no difference between a man and a woman when considering what job to put him in,” she says.

Another iconic figure, the master sergeant, has also undergone a dramatic change. Today one-third of these disciplinarians are women. “This is a deliberate change,” the officer says. “There’s no reason why women can’t fill these positions. Yes, there are women staff sergeants.”

But some positions are still restricted to men or women. Despite a drive from the mid-2000s to consider employing men as navy controllers or observers, only women occupy these positions. In contrast, only men serve as kashrut inspectors; an attempt to place women in these roles failed.

Officers can explain why virtually all the cooks are men – the work requires considerable physical exertion. But they can’t explain why there are only female dental assistants.

Several combat positions are still closed to women, such as fighters in the Golani infantry brigade, sailors in submarines or troops in an air force elite commando outfit known as Shaldag. Officers say they expect that women will continue to be excluded from these jobs even if they’re accepted into tank crews or the air force’s combat search and rescue unit.

“This stems from both the girls’ and the IDF’s demands,” the officer says.

Despite the raging debate over women in combat roles, the army notes that the IDF actually opened combat positions to women already in 1995, following the High Court ruling in the Alice Miller case. Miller, who had a civilian pilot’s license and pursued a degree in aerospace engineering, sued the military for a chance to enter the air force’s prestigious flying course and become a pilot.

That effort got the flying course opened to women, to be followed by the Border Police, air defense systems, artillery, the navy and the Caracal infantry battalion. The IDF now plans to open more combat professions to women; in the Armored Corps, for example.

Chief medical officer weighs in

Religious groups recently distributed some 200,000 leaflets to soldiers in their campaign against women going into combat roles and against mixed military service in general. They say the integration harms fighting standards, and of course female combatants could be killed or badly wounded.

The Manpower Directorate, however, has a different view. “Every role that opens to women has been approved by the chief medical officer’s physiology division,” a female officer says.

“They first check if a woman can do the job and what muscle mass she needs for it, then they set conditions like minimum height and weight. The more attractive a profession is, the more highly motivated the girls are to be part of it. But naturally we don’t want anyone to get physically hurt because of her placement.”

A 23-year-old woman from Hadera is serving in a position that has reopened to women after several years. She’s an engine mechanic in the navy’s elite Shayetet 13 unit; in fact she’s in charge of the engines on all the vessels.

“Obviously the men turned up their noses at first – how can a girl handle an engine?” she says. “But I proved myself and showed them I was no sucker.”

Nadia Bartman, 20, of Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa, is a driver in the Northern Command. “At first the assistant battalion commander had doubts about me,” she says. “He considered me half a driver. But after seeing me drive all the vehicles, his attitude changed.”

Bartman signed up as a career officer and calls on other women to apply for the position. “It’s terribly important for women to know they can do it too,” she says.