Women in IDF

Women in the Israeli Defense Forces are female soldiers who serve in the Israel Defense Forces

Female combat soldiers of the Home Front Command's Search and Rescue Unit receive combat training.
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Israel is the only country in the world with a mandatory military service requirement for women. Women have taken part in Israel’s military before and since the founding of the state in 1948, with women currently comprising 33% of all IDF soldiers and 51% of its officers, fulfilling various roles within the Ground, Navy and Air Forces.

Female soldiers in 1950
pinterest button Female soldiers in 1950 BRAUNER TEDDY, Public Domain

The 2000 Equality amendment to the Military Service law states that «The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.»

As of now, 88% to 92% of all roles in the IDF are open to female candidates, while women can be found in 69% of all positions.

First IDF ordnance officer of Ethiopian Jewish origin
pinterest button First IDF ordnance officer of Ethiopian Jewish origin Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

Formerly women conscripts served in the Women's Army Corps, commonly known by its Hebrew acronym, Chen.

After a five-week period of basic training they served as clerks, drivers, welfare workers, nurses, radio operators, flight controllers, ordnance personnel, and course instructors.

History

Before the State of Israel

Before the establishment of the state, women served in combat roles in the militias that would become the Israel Defense Forces.

The rate of women who took part in combat organizations stood at 20%. At the years before the establishment of the IDF, military service for women existed in the lines of the Shomer and Hagana organizations.

The Hagana stated in its law that its lines were open to: «Every Jewish male or female, who is prepared and trained to fulfill the obligation of national defense.» Most served as medics, communications specialists, and weaponeers.

Women training at Mishmar HaEmek, 1948
pinterest button Women training at Mishmar HaEmek, 1948 Hashomer Hatzair, Public Domain

During WWII approximately 4,000 females volunteered for service in the British assisting forces. One of them, Alice Hatzor-Hirsch, was about 16 when she joined the Hagana.

In 1942, she joined the British army as a driver. «We were more connected than the others,» she recalled years later. «A girl becoming a driver in the British army was considered the height of boldness at the time.»

In Tel-Aviv of the 1940s, a battalion was established in which women filled positions in security, weapons transport, and manned anti-aircraft posts.

Female combat soldiers of the field intelligence company
pinterest button Female combat soldiers of the field intelligence company «Nachshol» are stationed along the southern Israeli border. Due to the increased tension in the area, a unique exercise was conducted in the beginning of November, practicing clashes with terrorists, storming at targets, and high-level camouflage, while confronted with mock explosives simulating real bombs. Israel Defense Forces, CC BY-SA 3.0

During the winter of 1948, women joined the combat soldiers of the Palmach, who traveled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with their weapons concealed in their clothes.

The Palmach arm (thirty percent of which were females) trained nine female platoon commanders, and other female squad commanders.

1948 War

— —David Ben-Gurion, first Israeli Prime Minister

On 26 May 1948, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion officially set up the IDF as the country's army. On 18 August 1948, mandatory conscription for single and married women without children (born between the years 1920—1930) began.

Women served in many positions including nurses, signal operators, drivers, clerks, cooks and more. The Women's Corps, under which all women served, was responsible for taking care of women soldiers' needs and for their training and integration into different IDF units. The Women's Corps also sent young women soldiers to be teachers in developing areas and immigrant neighborhoods of Israel.

Since 1948

Apart from during the 1948 Palestine War, when manpower shortages saw many Palmach and IDF women taking active part in land battles, women were historically barred from battle in the IDF, serving in a variety of technical and administrative support roles.

Soon after the establishment of the IDF, the removal of all women from front-line positions was decreed. Decisive for this decision was the very real possibility of falling into enemy hands as prisoners of war.

It was fair and equitable, it was argued, to demand from women equal sacrifice and risk; but the risk for women prisoners of rape and sexual molestation was infinitely greater than the same risk for men.

A majority of women serving in the IDF then were secretaries. The rest served primarily as instructors, nurses, clerks and telephone operators. A few women flew transport missions in the 1950s and a few women were accepted into flight training in the 1970s, but did not complete the program before it was closed to women.

Yael Rom, the first female pilot trained by the Israeli Air Force, earned her wings in 1951. Hava Inbar, a lawyer, was appointed the judge of the military court in Haifa in September 1969, thus becoming the first female military judge in the world. «I do not know if I want to be a military judge my whole life,» she said in an interview, «but I am glad that I was appointed; it proves that the IDF leaves almost all doors open for its female soldiers.»

During the Yom Kippur War, due to a growing need for ground forces, women were needed in roles in the field. According to Rina Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women's Network, roles for women beyond technical and secretarial support only started to open up in the late 1970s and early '80s, because of manpower shortages. Since then, a few women have earned ranks higher than colonel. In 1986, Amira Dotan, then head of the Women's Corps, became the first female brigadier-general.

Gender equality

Civilian pilot and aeronautical engineer Alice Miller successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to take the Israeli Air Force pilot training exams, after being rejected on grounds of gender.

Shooting practice
pinterest button Shooting practice Alexisrael, Public Domain

Though president Ezer Weizman, a former IAF commander, told Miller that she'd be better off staying home and darning socks, the court eventually ruled in 1996 that the IAF could not exclude qualified women from pilot training.

Even though Miller would not pass the exams, the ruling was a watershed, opening doors for women in new IDF roles. Female legislators took advantage of the momentum to draft a bill allowing women to volunteer for any position, if they could qualify.

The Infantry Instructors Course includes a
pinterest button The Infantry Instructors Course includes a «Field Week» during which soldiers experience drills, live fire, combat exercises, sleeping out in the open, and other aspects of operational activity. The course is held in the Infantry Training School in southern Israel and is attended mostly by girls. Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

In 2000, the Equality amendment to the Military Service law stated that «The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.» The amendment that female lawmakers had drafted granted equal opportunities to women found physically and personally suitable for a job. The question of who and what was «suitable» was left to the discretion of military leaders on a case-by-case basis.

Women did start to enter combat support and light combat roles in a few areas, including the Artillery Corps, infantry units and armored divisions. A few platoons named Karakal were formed for men and women to serve together in light infantry. By 2000 Karakal became a full-fledged battalion. Many women would also join the Border Police.

The Field Training Week in southern Israel, part of the IDF Infantry Instructors course, includes individual and group drills, navigation practice, sleeping in the field and camouflage training. At the end of the course the female soldiers are placed in various positions, instructing IDF Ground Forces.
pinterest button The Field Training Week in southern Israel, part of the IDF Infantry Instructors course, includes individual and group drills, navigation practice, sleeping in the field and camouflage training. At the end of the course the female soldiers are placed in various positions, instructing IDF Ground Forces. Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

The first female jet fighter pilot, Roni Zuckerman, received her wings in 2001. By 2006, the first female pilots and navigators graduated from the IAF training course, and several hundred women entered combat units, primarily in support roles, like intelligence gatherers, instructors, social workers, medics and engineers.

When the Second Lebanon War broke out, it was the first time since 1948 that women were in field operations alongside men. Airborne helicopter engineer Sgt. -Maj. (res.) Keren Tendler was the first female IDF combat soldier to be killed in action.

Ceremony of receiving berets in Masada. IDF Caracal battalion.
pinterest button Ceremony of receiving berets in Masada. IDF Caracal battalion. Zizoxaxa, Public Domain

In November 2007 the Air Force appointed its first woman deputy squadron commander.

On 23 June 2011, Orna Barbivai became the first female Major-General in the IDF upon her promotion to the role of commander of the Manpower Directorate. She is the second woman to serve on the General Staff.

Orna Barbivai
pinterest button Orna Barbivai IDF spokesperson, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2012, Capitan Merav Buchris become the first female ammunition Officer in the Air force , she started her military carrier as a Shoher at the Technical Academy in Haifa.

Capitan Merav Buchris
pinterest button Capitan Merav Buchris IDF

Women's Affairs advisor

The Women's Corps was dismantled in 2000, so that female soldiers for the first time would fall under the authority of individual units based on jobs and not on gender. They would wear the insignia of their units instead of the insignia of the Women's Corps. The position of Women's Affairs Advisor to the Chief of Staff was created in 2001.

IDF women soldiers
pinterest button IDF women soldiers Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

The female officer holding the position is in charge of ensuring more opportunities and a suitable environment for female soldiers, as well as better enhancing their skills. The mission of the advisor is described by the IDF as «empowering women, the IDF and Israeli society by promoting conditions that allow for the optimal use of the capabilities of women serving in the IDF; promoting equal opportunities for women during their military service; and assimilating women into military leadership positions.»

Service Exemptions

A law passed in 1978 made exemptions for women on religious grounds automatic upon the signing of a simple declaration attesting to the observance of orthodox religious practices.

This legislation raised considerable controversy, and IDF officials feared that the exemption could be abused by any nonreligious woman who did not wish to serve and thus further exacerbate the already strained personnel resources of the IDF.

Women in the Israel Defense Forces
pinterest button Women in the Israel Defense Forces Artur Andrychowski, CC BY-SA 2.0

Women exempted on religious grounds were legally obliged to fulfill a period of alternative service doing social or educational work assigned to them. In practice, however, women performed such service only on a voluntary basis.

Women singing controversy

In September 2011, nine religiously-observant cadets in the IDF officer's course walked out of an evening seminar on the legacy of the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza when a band comprising two male and two female vocalists took the stage to sing.

Zahal Women forces on Parade
pinterest button Zahal Women forces on Parade zeevveez, CC BY 2.0

The commander of the school where the walkout took place later expelled four of them, after they said they would disobey orders and walk out again if such circumstances were to recur. Nevertheless the IDF agreed to clarify regulations on this issue, given the enormous rise in the proportion of religious soldiers in combat units.

In October 2011, amid rising tensions between IDF top brass and religious leaders, female soldiers were asked to leave the central event following orders from IDF rabbis, and had to celebrate in a separate area during the traditional dancing that marks the end of the Simhat Torah holiday.

These four soldiers constitute the largest number of female soldiers ever to simultaneously complete the Sergent-First-Class' Course for the Infantry Corps. The four girls will go back to serve as commanders in their respective brigades' headquarters.
pinterest button These four soldiers constitute the largest number of female soldiers ever to simultaneously complete the Sergent-First-Class' Course for the Infantry Corps. The four girls will go back to serve as commanders in their respective brigades' headquarters. Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

In November 2011, nineteen reserve Major Generals sent a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, imploring them not to allow harm to come to women's service in the army as a result of religious soldiers' demands. They warned about harm caused to the motivation of women to serve in the army, as well as to what they termed damage to «the fundamental values of Israeli society.»

Service

Mandatory service for women in the IDF is 24 months, apart from roles specified in law which require a service length of 36 months. Women may be exempted from military service for reasons of religious conscience, marriage, pregnancy or motherhood. A woman may receive an exemption on religious grounds under the following conditions:

  1. She has declared that for reasons of conscience, or a religious way of life, she is prevented from doing military service and has proven this to the satisfaction of the exemption committee.
  2. She keeps the laws of Kashrut at home and outside.
  3. She does not travel on Shabbat.

Women who arrive in Israel at age 17 and over are generally exempt from army service, but may serve on a voluntary basis. Also, women (who are not fighters) are not generally called up for reserve duty if they are married or if they are beyond age 24.

Combat roles

Clause 16A of the military service law requires that female combat soldiers serve 3 years of mandatory service, and continue in reserves service up to age 38, even if they become mothers.

The Field Training Week in Southern Israel, part of the IDF Infantry Instructors course, includes individual and group drills, navigation practice, sleeping in the field and camouflage training. At the end of the course the female soldiers will be placed in different positions, instructing IDF Ground Forces.
pinterest button The Field Training Week in Southern Israel, part of the IDF Infantry Instructors course, includes individual and group drills, navigation practice, sleeping in the field and camouflage training. At the end of the course the female soldiers will be placed in different positions, instructing IDF Ground Forces. Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0

These are essentially identical to the terms of service for male combat soldiers. Each year, 1,500 female combat soldiers are drafted into the IDF. Women currently make up 3% of the IDF's combat soldiers.

A combat option for women is the Caracal Battalion, which is a highly operational force that is made up of 70 percent female soldiers. The unit undergoes training like any combat infantry. The IDF commando K9 unit, Oketz, also drafts females as elite combat soldiers.

Useful Information

Women in the Israeli Defense Forces
Hebrew: שירות נשים בצה"ל

2007 Segev Committee

In 2007, then Head of Manpower Directorate, Aluf (Maj. Gen.) Elazar Stern, appointed a committee to define women's service in the IDF in the next decade, with the objective of increasing equal opportunities in women's service in the IDF.

The committee, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yehuda Segev, submitted its report to Stern in September 2007.

In September 2008, the 100-page report was presented to the IDF General Staff. Rav Aluf Gabi Ashkenazi, then-Chief of Staff, voiced support for the committee's vision:

"The IDF, as a leading organization in Israeli society, designates the service of men and women to a fulfilling and respectful service based upon equal opportunities in the service of IDF and the State of Israel."

Recommendations

Service length

The committee called for the annulment of the model that has been in place since the 1950s, under which a soldier's length of service and service options is largely determined by gender. "This is an archaic model that causes under-utilization of the resources ... of half of Israeli society, and closes off many opportunities, both during service and for integrating into society after service," the report said.

In 2007, 12 percent of all army jobs were completely closed to women. The report partially attributed it to the shorter length of service, as a barrier to putting women in the most demanding and important jobs.

Hence postings are "to a large extent" determined by gender rather than a soldier's talents and abilities. Instead, the length of service "should depend solely on the job, rather than on one's gender."

Exemptions

The report called for changing the law to make it harder for women to get an exemption from mandatory service, and to fight the phenomenon of women falsely claiming exemptions on religious grounds.

But it proposed doing this only after the service options open to women had been expanded. It also said the criteria for exemptions from service should be the same for both men and women.

Affirmative action and integration

The panel recommended mandatory quotas for promoting women, with the goal of giving women a "significant presence" in the army's "senior decision-making ranks."

In addition, it called for creating an effective, well-funded system to ensure proper working environments for both men and women, and for drafting a "gender code" that would lay down explicit rules for interaction between the sexes.

"There should be no jobs or units categorically closed to either women or men," it said. "Service in all units, postings and missions would be joint, subject to the rules of appropriate integration."

Conclusion

The committee proposed opening all jobs to women aside from a handful to be determined by a special committee, whose decisions would require the approval of the Chief of Staff, the Defense Minister and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

It said the initial screening and assignment process should be unified so that men and women are part of the same system and receive their assignments based on the same criteria, including for acceptance into combat units. The panel proposed implementing this change gradually over the course of a decade.

If applied in full, the committee said, the proposal would "strengthen the IDF" by enabling "optimal utilization of the entirety of the human capital Israeli society places at its disposal. ...

This is the right way to ensure that the IDF, as the people's army, creates a direct connection between equality of obligation and equality of opportunity for women."

In contrast, the current model, "in which the number of women who aren't drafted is rising at a worrying pace from year to year, is de facto turning women's service into voluntary service, in a manner that threatens the entire manpower structure."

Without significant action, it said, the "proportion of women enlisting each year would soon fall from 55 percent to below 50 percent, at which point the army would have no choice but to make service for women completely voluntary."

Internal criticism

The IDF Rabbinate's representative on the committee, Lt. Col. Eyal Krim, refused to sign off on some of the recommendations, particularly those relating to putting women on the front lines.

Another member, Lt. Col. (res.) Yalon Farhi, later said the committee had ignored information it received about the downsides of sending women into combat.

Stern later appointed another panel to review this issue, and it upheld the Segev Committee's conclusions.