“The Army is the supreme symbol of duty, and as long as women are not equal to men in performing this duty, they have not yet obtained true equality. If the daughters of Israel are absent from the army, then the character of the Yishuv will be distorted.” – David Gurion
Israel is the only country in the world that requires women to serve in the armed forces. This obligation supports the ethos of the IDF as the nation’s army and instills a profound sense that the entire society contributes to the security of the country.
The Defense Service Law of 1959 defines and regulates the obligation of service in the Israel Defense Forces. According to the Law, all citizens and permanent residents of the State of Israel are required to perform military service. Women are sent their first draft notice at age 17. All those between the ages of 18 and 26, who are physically fit, unmarried, have not borne children, and have not objected on religious grounds or grounds of conscience must fulfill their military obligation. Also, women who make aliyah at age 17 and over are generally exempt from army service, but may serve on a voluntary basis.
Women currently perform compulsory military service in the IDF for a period of two years, as opposed to nearly three years for males. In 2001, eligibility for women in the military reserves was extended until the age of 38, with an exemption for pregnant women or mothers.
The role of women in Israel’s defense has a long tradition reaching back to the biblical days of Yael and Deborah. Women played a vital role in the underground struggle for Israel’s independence, including participation in signals and combat roles in the pre-state military cadres: Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi.
In 1948, the IDF began to reorganize its frontline brigades, and the issue was raised as to whether women should be integrated into men’s units, or whether separate battalions of women should be formed that would serve in the brigade while remaining independent of it.
The second option was decided upon, and the Women’s Corps was thus founded on May 16, 1948. Within a year, however, the Women’s Corps was restructured, and female soldiers were dispersed throughout various units. From then and until the corps disbandment in 2001, servicewomen come under the direct command of the commander of the unit to which they are assigned, but the Women’s Corps constituted a professional support system for women in the IDF. Approximately 20% of the IDF in the War of Independence were women.
Recognizing the uniqueness of women’s service, the IDF established the Women’s Corps as a parallel administrative system to the command system. Its main tasks were to formulate policy relating to the service of female recruits, to advise commanders on the issue of women’s service, and to command the Women’s Corps units. The objectives of the Women’s Corps were:
- To help realize the potential of women in the IDF, in accordance with the needs of the IDF and policies of General Staff.
- To advise commanders and servicewomen on specific issues pertaining to the military service of female soldiers.
- To be responsible for the instruction and training of female recruits, NCOs and officers.
The Women’s Corps was commanded by a Brigadier General. The network established by the Women’s Corps performed a large number of functions ranging from advising at the General Staff level to handling matters of individual servicewomen at the personal level, establishing guiding principles for the service of female soldiers, professional training, terms of service, integration of various professions and duties, intersex tension and women’s health issues.
From 1948 until the 1990’s, women were prohibited from engaging in actual combat but could serve in support and combat-support roles in the IDF. The rationale for this policy was that should a woman be captured by the enemy, the effect on national morale would be devastating.
New roles for women began to open up in the late 1970’s and early ‘80s because of manpower shortages. More opportunies followed several Supreme Court rulings in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
All young women with Israeli citizenship are sent their first draft notice at age 17. During the year preceding their induction, they are classified and processed. The initial selection process includes the preparation of a medical profile, a psychotechnical examination and verification of formal education and personal background.
As a result of improvements in the selection process, a large percentage of female candidates for military service are assigned postings before their actual conscription. A considerable number of women volunteer for premilitary courses, taken on their own time (as civilians) before their induction. These courses prepare candidates for military service in specific military occupational specialties. These options are important to both the needs of the IDF, which is interested in making maximum use of the ability of its recruits, and to the recruit, who is personally involved in establishing the course that her military service will take.
For many years most women served as clerks, drivers, welfare workers, nurses, radio operators, flight controllers, ordnance personnel, and course instructors. Over the course of the years, the number of military occupational specialties open to women in the IDF has expanded and today 92% of all positions within the IDF are open to women. Women have long served in technological positions, intelligence, operations and training. Likewise, women can be found servicing IDF computerized systems, working as computer programmers, smart weapons systems operators and electronics technicians.
In 1997, a Supreme Court ruling upheld the petition of a servicewoman, Alice Miller, to be allowed to apply for Flight School. The Defense Service Law was thus amended to enable servicewomen to attend Flight School and for woman recruits to serve in units outside the IDF.
A co-ed infantry unit – Caracal – was established to patrol Israel’s southern border with Egypt for drug smugglers and terrorist infiltrators.
On August 1, 2001, the existing Women’s Corps was incorporated into the General Staff rather than acting as an independent unit. This occurred following the adoption of the 2000 Equality amendment to the Military Service law, which gave women the right to serve in any role in the IDF. Changes in the IDF are supposed to give female soldiers new opportunities and allow them to be part of all units, including combat units. The Commander of the Women’s Corps, Brig.-Gen. Suzy Yogev, was appointed to serve as the first Advisor on Women’s Issues to the Chief of Staff.
Today, women make up 34% of all soldiers. Women may also take the officers course, providing they meet the stiff criteria and have demonstrated their ability while in the ranks. Becoming an officer is voluntary, and those who successfully complete the officers course must sign up for an additional nine months of career service. Today, 57% of all officers in the IDF are women.
In 2011, Orna Barbivai became the first female Major-General in the IDF upon her promotion to the role of commander of the Manpower Directorate.
In 2018, a pilot program tested the potential for women to serve in tank crew members. Based on the success of that trial, the IDF announced in January 2020 the creation of all-female tank crews assigned to defend the Egyptian and Jordanian border. The new crews will serve in Israel’s main battle tank, the Merkava MK 4, which has active protection systems that intercept incoming anti-tank missiles and RPGs.
“It seems the IDF is trying to kill two birds with one stone—allocating quality male personnel to the maneuvering units that would move into enemy territory and showcasing gender equality, an important topic for the IDF in the context of military-societal relations,” Eitan Shamir, former head of the National Security Doctrine Department in the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and a research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies said.
The number of women in combat roles has been steadily rising. In 2012, 600 women joined co-ed combat battalions. By 2017, more than 2,700 women were recruited to mixed-gender IDF battalions.
The number of religious, Modern Orthodox women in the IDF has also seen a significant increase since 2010 as well. Approximately 2,500 Modern-Orthodox Israeli women joined the IDF in 2017, as opposed to the 935 that joined in 2010.
According to the IDF, 535 female Israeli soldiers had been killed in combat operations between 1962 and 2016. Helicopter engineer Sgt.-Maj. (res.) Keren Tendler was the first female IDF combat soldier to be killed in action.
Sources: Israel Defense Forces;
Israeli Government Press Office;
“Women in the Israel Defense Forces,” Wikipedia;
“Orna Barbivai,” Wikipedia.
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