Why Israel Must Send Women to the Battlefield, According to a Female Fighter Pilot

I felt proud defending Israel and commanding the next generation of fighters. Anyone argues against women's integration in combat wants to deprive us of our basic rights

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A pilot climbs into an F-16 "Netz" (Hawk) fighter plane at the Israel Air Force's Nevatim base in 2011.
A pilot climbs into an F-16 "Netz" (Hawk) fighter plane at the Israel Air Force's Nevatim base in 2011.Credit: Yuval Tebol
Shira, a pilot in the IAF reserves

My name is Shira. I work for a consulting firm and I serve as a pilot in the Israel Air Force reserves. Throughout my life, I’ve operated in male-dominant environments in which integration of women has been far from optimal. Because of my deep faith in my ability and that of other women, as well as the realization of the importance of equal opportunities – I am much involved in the area of women’s integration and empowerment.

The June 23 article by Irit Linur (“Israel, stop sending women to the battlefield - they're much weaker than men”), in which she claims that Border Policewomen Hadas Malka and Hadar Cohen were sent to their deaths on the battlefield, saddened and upset me. A response was called for, I felt. To that end, I want to recap the reasons for women’s integration and describe my own personal experience, as well as to suggest steps that the Israel Defense Forces should take to ratchet up the egalitarian revolution, which got underway in the 1980s. This is a revolution that has had a critical, positive impact on Israeli society as a whole.

There are two major reasons why the integration of women in a male-dominant environment – or, broadly speaking, of a minority in majority surroundings – is right, important and essential. The first, and more significant, reason is equal rights. While men and women are different by nature, they deserve an equal starting point that will enable them to realize their full potential. This principle is doubly important in a country where military service is mandatory, and given the tremendous influence that this service has on life in Israeli society in general.

It’s indisputable that women are physically weaker than men, on average, but physical ability is not the only requirement for those serving in combat positions. Combat soldiers, both men and women, need to be able to cope with difficulties, make decisions under pressure, and to think, analyze and work in a team. In all these parameters, women are not weaker than men.

“There is only a tiny minority of female soldiers who can stand up to the physical and mental rigors of combat,” Linur wrote. But I maintain that many women can cope successfully with a large number of physical tasks and – more important – that women are not mentally weaker than men. The contention that women are mentally weaker than men is mistaken, infuriating and inflammatory. It is my hope, which I am doing all I can to turn into reality, that no woman will believe that claim or act in accordance with it.

The second reason for integrating women fully in the IDF is that it’s to the army’s benefit. The army gains twice here: because the pool of relevant potential personnel is doubled, and because every environment in which personnel are diversified is stronger and more productive, such that they will carry out their assignments better. Just as it is clear today that the entry of women into operating rooms, research laboratories, academia, law firms, banks, politics and, yes, journalism, has generated an improvement in each of those realms – it is clear to me that the IDF, too, has been strengthened and will continue to be bolstered by this trend.

When I was drafted, I was excited and elated to have the privilege of enrolling in the flight academy, which had been opened to women less than 10 years previously. Beyond receiving special accommodations related to minor physical criteria, I completed all the tasks and requirements successfully, as an equal among equals. The demand for excellent performance and the focus on the final result underlay the entire period of my service, whether during operational flights or as an instructor and a commanding officer.

My experience was a positive one, of multiple and diverse challenges, alongside men and women of excellence, without having to make any compromises in my performance. I felt immense pride at being given the right to defend the country and to command the next generation of its fighters. Certainly I didn’t feel that the army was “sending me to my death on the battlefield” (which to my mind is no more than cheap and manipulative terminology). My military service led to the development of many abilities in me, and was a major springboard that is now helping me to integrate into key positions in Israeli society.

At the same time, the proportion of women serving in combat positions is disappointingly low. Along with the active steps the IDF is taking to increase their numbers, there are additional measures that need to be implemented – notably, to improve selection processes and training so that they are more compatible with the requisite final result.

To examine the number of female combat soldiers today, their rate of success and the decline in the motivation of male soldiers to serve in mixed-gender units is to take a narrow, shortsighted view. We find similar data if we look at the integration of women in most institutions and organizations in Israel and abroad. Is it right to stop the “experiment of women’s integration” in scientific disciplines, high-tech or the Knesset? A revolution is in progress, and revolutions demand vision, a long view and faith.

Hadas Malka and Hadar Cohen, of blessed memory, chose to do combat service. They volunteered to defend their country although they knew they were risking their lives, and unfortunately they paid the highest price. Their deaths are tragic and hard to bear, just like the deaths of male soldiers. But they do not constitute a reason to deprive women of basic rights.

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