Analysis

On Women, Israeli Army Could Learn From U.S. Military

Recent news reports from Israel sound to some U.S. officers like fairy tales from a faraway land

Israeli soldiers march during a ceremony in Jerusalem, March 7, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

In an election campaign that is still looking for a focusing issue, the disputes about religion and state are popping up again. This includes, as is customary, attacks on the Supreme Court but also wild lashing out at the LGBTQ community and the struggle for women’s equality.

Last week, even before he managed to brawl with Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich took the trouble to hint that the Israel Defense Forces is wasting its time on treating transgender soldiers instead of training for war. Smotrich’s sting is part of a broader thesis that is taking hold on the religious right, to the effect that a leftist-feminist-gay conspiracy is afoot, the sole aim of which is to weaken the IDF in order to help the Arabs win the next war.

>> Read more: Smotrich isn’t only a homophobe | Opinion

In the context of the continuing conflict here with the religious politicians, it is interesting to examine the situation in the American armed forces with regard to these issues. A series of conversations with RAND Corporation experts who advise the Defense Department and the various branches of the military brings to the fore an approach close to that of the IDF, but also a number of striking differences.

  • Women in combat units: The United States was ahead of Israel in this area. Back in the 1980s and the 1990s women were already being assigned to flight roles, including as combat pilots, and were being posted to positions in the submarine force, while the navy made logistical changes to enable living spaces and bathrooms for women on its vessels. (In Israel the breakthrough occurred gradually, only after the 1995 appeal to the High Court of Justice by Alice Miller to be allowed to do flight-training in the air force.) However, later on, women are still not being integrated into many combat units, mainly in the U.S. ground forces.

The change in the United States occurred in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of the past decade. When it emerged that the fighting there was being conducted in “360 degrees” as one female researcher of the issue described it, the conclusion was that women were at a certain amount of risk for being taken prisoner, rape, and murder even if they were assigned to combat support roles. (A prominent example was the capture of a female American corporal in the Iraq war.) This gave rise to the understanding that if the risk exists in any case with posting to the front, there is no point anymore in prohibiting women from serving as combat soldiers – and that the only test is the degree of suitability to a role and the ability to carry out the mission. The debate dealt for the most part with abilities and skills and not with questions of principle having to do with equality. Another question concerned the extent of social solidarity within units: Does integrating women into the spearhead of the army have a bad effect?

The main instruction Congress gave the army, when the issue was examined, was to maintain gender-neutral standards. In other words, the American solution is quite different from the Israeli solution. In Israel they are now opening most roles to women (apart from in front-line ground forces units – the infantry, special forces and except for the famous pilot project that was shelved, in the armored corps). However, the IDF uses an effort yardstick adapted to women in combat roles, with the aim of enabling them to pass the required threshold. The Americans say: full equality, with no winking. In other words, women can also serve in the elite units of the special forces but first they must pass the entry threshold just like men.

The result has been full integration of women in many units while to date only a few female combat soldiers – less than the number of the fingers on one hand – have passed the hellish physical tests of some of the elite units. This is an approach that hasn’t changed from Obama’s day to Trump’s. The Defense Department is continuing to commission studies that try to figure out which women have a good chance of passing the threshold, how to prepare them and how to attract more women from civilian life into combat roles. Though conservative organizations and sometimes religious leaders have tried to halt the process or slow it down, in fact the women’s organizations have won this battle. The stories about the rabbis’ fight here to prevent joint service by men and women sound to American interlocutors like folktales from somewhere else, which in no way remind them of the Israel they have known.

  • Attitude towards LGBT people: In the past, the army officially refrained from enlisting them. In the 1990s, in an attempt to make enlistment and subsequent service in uniform to some extent easier for the LGBT community, the Clinton administration followed the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The attitude of the military establishment was that the community could be absorbed into service but its members must keep their sexual identity secret, also for fear they could fall victim to blackmail. In some of the branches, the “two kisses” rule was adopted: anyone who was caught kissing with a person of the same sex twice was discharged. This ostensibly tolerant policy turned out to be a nightmare for all concerned and obligated gay men and lesbians to live on constant fear of public discovery, which would cost them dismissal.

Since then, there has been a profound social change in the United States – coming out of the closet has become a widespread phenomenon, even at a relatively early age and tolerance in questions of sexual identity has increased. In 2010, the branches of the military, the Defense Department and Congress came to the conclusion that the policy was outdated and irrelevant – and officially, a policy of openness and full acceptance was instituted. 

  • Transgender people: Towards the end of the Obama administration, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the lifting of the ban on transsexual people serving in the armed forces. Trump, with the flick of a tweet, revoked the decision less than a year later, upon becoming president. In the meantime a number of petitions to the courts have been filed by soldiers who were hurt by the change in policy. In January of this year the Supreme Court ruled that the policy determined by the president can be continued until there is a final decision on the petitions.

In recent years there have been a number of studies about the implications of recruiting trans people into the army: How many people does this involve? How does relating to a person change when that person is undergoing a sex change process? Should the Defense Department cover the costs of the surgery as part of the health insurance? And could this not be a source of attraction for people who want to obtain funding to undergo the process? These are practical concerns that are engaging the huge military system in America. One of the questions that is bothering the Defense Department is for how long will a person who wants to undergo such surgery be incapacitated. Here too, the discussion has become practical, more than about principles.