Israel Defense Forces
Israel is the only country where military service is obligatory for both men and women. Women constitute approximately a third of the conscripts and close to twenty percent of the standing professional army. In 2003, the military conscripted some seventy-seven percent of the cohort of eighteen-year-old Jewish men and fifty-nine percent of the cohort of eighteen-year-old Jewish women.
During the Knesset debates about the Security Service Law (1949), the principle of compulsory service for Jewish women was supported by all except the religious parties. After all, women had served alongside men in combat units during the War of Independence (1947–1948). The law, however, reflected an ambivalent attitude of the policymakers towards women’s service. Under the leadership of Ben Gurion, it was deemed essential that women, as equal citizens, participate in national security and be given sufficient military training to be able to defend themselves in case of attack. At the same time, it was emphasized that military service must not interfere with motherhood—considered women’s unique contribution to the survival of the Jewish people and thus to national security. Pregnant women and mothers were exempt from service. The value of women’s service was discussed primarily in terms of their freeing men for combat roles and on the front lines. While the law did not initially prohibit women’s participation in combat roles, in 1951 the minister of defense introduced regulations that closed combat and other occupations to women. This was the situation until the mid-1990s, when the Supreme Court case of Alice Miller v. the Minister of Defense declared military policy to be a form of gender discrimination.
The Israeli military is based on a gendered division of labor and a gendered structure of power. Young men and women who studied in the same classrooms and wrote the same high school examinations are recruited on the basis of different criteria and go through different predraft preparations, tests and procedures. With few exceptions, recently introduced, they are classified, sorted, and assigned by different organizational units using different criteria and undergo separate and different military training. Military jobs are generally assigned first by gender and then within gender by aptitudes, competencies and other considerations.
Men and women serve for different lengths of time. In 2002, compulsory military service for men was thirty-six months; for women, it was increased from twenty-one to twenty-four months. Men serve in the reserves until the age of forty-five, women until twenty-four. However, with rare exceptions, women were never called to do reserve service until 2002. In 2000, women’s reserve service was extended to the age of thirty for combat soldiers and to thirty-eight for other soldiers, with married women and mothers totally exempt. Women, but not men, have the right to claim exemption on the basis of religious observance. Women are much more likely to be exempted on the basis of conscientious objection. In 2002, approximately twenty-six percent of Jewish women received automatic exemption on the basis of a declaration of religious belief and/or conscience, while eight percent of Jewish men were exempted on the basis of devotion to religious study.
Women’s shorter service and their exemption from reserve duty were repeatedly cited as the basis for their differential treatment: the military made it cost-inefficient to invest in women’s training. This further reduced women’s usefulness to the military.
By making gender a primary basis for classification, the military intensifies gender distinctions and then uses these distinctions as justifications for women’s exclusion from positions of prestige and power. The most senior ranks are filled almost exclusively by men and women rarely participate in the forums where decisions affecting the lives of women in the military are made. No woman is senior enough to participate in the Supreme General Staff—the most senior forum of the military, which makes decisions affecting the lives of all Israelis. Consequently, as one of the important institutions that organize the power relations of gender in Israeli society, the military contributes to gender inequality beyond the boundaries of the IDF.
Until 2001, when the women’s corps (CHEN, an acronym spelled the same way as the Hebrew word for “charm”) was abolished, women were subject to different systems of command. CHEN was established in 1949 to assist the IDF in recruiting women and then in managing the personnel and training issues emanating from perceived differences between women and men. Until 1997, CHEN had formal responsibility for all women soldiers with regard to military training (including officer training), job assignments, discipline, and judicial matters, as well as welfare and well-being, including protection from sexual harassment. From the end of the 1970s, these protective policies came under increasing criticism from women’s organizations as counter to women’s strategic interests. In the early 1990s, disciplinary functions in the professional army were transferred from CHEN to the women’s functional commanders. The emerging policy was to limit the intervention of CHEN to matters that were “relevant to the differences between men and women” or for which the women’s corps had “a relative advantage, such as in matters of sexual harassment.”
On August 1, 2001 CHEN was officially disbanded as a separate corps and its CO became “the adviser to the chief of staff on women’s issues.” Despite the title, the adviser remained subordinate to the CO of personnel. Assisted by a small staff, the advisor’s responsibilities include formulating and monitoring policies designed to promote women and expand the number of occupations in which they serve, policies aimed at meeting women’s special needs, and producing and providing relevant knowledge as leverage for change.
Dismantling of the CHEN was part of a larger project that involved a shift from protecting women to their incorporation as more equal participants. It was accompanied by a change in rhetoric from speaking of women as “freeing men for combat” to speaking of them in terms of optimizing their potential for the benefit of the organization, although freeing men remained the basis of the new policy of recruiting women to reserve duty. The military opened a number of non-combat occupations in combat units and in units located in sensitive areas such as the border patrol, as well as combat training, such as that for pilots, anti-aircraft, some artillery roles, and naval officers. In 2000 women started serving in a “light infantry” unit (entitled Karakal), which mostly patrols the peaceful borders with Jordan. Today, the Karakal battalion consists of seventy percent women and thirty percent men. In 1996, women constituted 0.5 percent of the combat soldiers, and in 2001, one percent. In 2002, 0.5 percent of the women (250 women) were in combat positions, and in 2004 the number of women in combat roles increased to 2.5 percent of all women soldiers. In 1999, basic training was conducted in the same boot camp but in separate courses for women and men not in combat positions. The separate women’s training camp was closed. Women in positions that require more extensive training sign on for an additional period of service. Finally, since May 2003 officer training in the Israeli army is gender integrated; thus, instead of running separate courses for men and women at two different bases, courses for staff officers are now organized according to one’s designated role and prospective work environment. Men and women participate in both courses in equivalent numbers and are required to perform the same tasks and take part in all activities on an equal basis. In sum, since the late 1990s the military has changed its policy and opened combat roles to women, but these were limited to a very select group of women and a select number of jobs. The impact was primarily symbolic, challenging the traditional view of women as military clerks.
Table 1 presents the proportion of women officers by type of service for those in the professional army and for conscripts (column 1) and for those in the professional/standing army only (column 2) in 2003. As can be seen in Table 1, women were highly underrepresented in services with the greatest proportion of combat soldiers (3–10) and overrepresented in services with the greatest proportion of soldiers in white-collar, semi-professional and administrative positions (14–21). Generally, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the proportion of women officers in most occupations, including those in combat support. A more detailed breakdown of categories would reveal that few jobs are performed interchangeably by men and women.
In 2003, women constituted more than twenty-five percent of IDF officers. Table 2 presents the 2003 distribution within each gender among the ranks. At the bottom of the hierarchy, women constituted approximately sixty-six percent of the second lieutenants, a rank achieved during compulsory military service. Women constituted only some three percent of the officers in the three ranks below chief of staff. In 2002 there were three women at the rank of brigadier-general, a rank previously held only by the CO of the women’s corps. There were about fifteen at the rank of colonel. An individual may be assigned a rank higher than that warranted by the job assignment—this is known as a “personal rank” in contrast to a “job rank.” More women colonels achieved their ranks by virtue of the occupations they filled in 2002 than in 1985.
Women’s exclusion from combat roles has been a pivotal mechanism upon which male dominance in the military and beyond it rested. Although the military assigns women to serve in combat units, roles defined as combat and tasks performed in combat areas in practice have been—and, with few (but increasing) exceptions still are—closed to women. By defining combat service as a necessary prerequisite for virtually all the most senior positions and the majority of those below the senior levels, and then denying women access to this experience, the military blocked women’s movement up the ranks.
Women officers argued that combat experience should cease to be a requisite for many senior positions that they claimed did not require such experience. Positions at the rank of colonel and above that they claimed were unfairly closed to them included chief educational officer, CO of intelligence, CO of personnel, chief medical officer, chief mental health officer, chief military prosecutor and president of the appeals court. The recent appointments of women to the positions of military censor, military spokesperson and Chief Adjutancy officer (Army personnel management) were significant “firsts” in this direction.
Policies concerning women’s assignment were dictated primarily by the changing needs of the military. For example, the development and introduction of increasingly sophisticated military technology reduced the need for physical strength and endurance and increased the need for cognitive and other skills for which men had no special advantage. In recent cohorts, a growing proportion of men is not recruited or is discharged early, creating a shortage. The changing needs of the military resonated with the demands emanating from the liberal feminist women’s organizations to open more occupational categories to women. From the mid-1980s, the growth of the civil rights movement and civil rights litigation within the new liberal discourse increased sensitivity to discrimination against women. In 1976, 210 occupations out of a total of 709 were in theory open to women, but women actually served in only about half of them. Approximately seventy percent of women were in clerical positions. In 1988 women actually served in 234 of the approximately five hundred occupations that were then open to them (Bloom 1991:35). In 1998 they served in 330 of the 551 open to them; 187 were closed to women for reasons of their association with either combat or religious service (e.g., as chaplains). Since the mid-1980s the number of women serving in clerical roles has gradually decreased to twenty percent of all women soldiers in 2004. Thus, over two decades, the number of occupations open to women more than doubled, and the number in which women actually served more than tripled. In 2002, eighty-one percent of the occupations were officially open to women but they actually served in only forty-nine percent of them and did not serve in thirty-two percent of those officially open. The general process, then, is that more and more non-traditional feminine roles are opened for women in the IDF, but only a very small number of women actually serve in these roles.
In the 1980s, women replaced men as instructors for training men in various field-soldiering and combat skills, including driving tanks, artillery, and target shooting. Women’s representation among instructors, while still small, grew by over four hundred percent between 1983 and 1993 and they numbered about two thousand in 1994. Serving as instructors for men-only units was the closest women came to a combat role and was among the most prestigious occupations open to them. In the early 1980s, the military introduced the use of women NCOs and junior officers to serve as instructors for combat units and toward the end of the 1980s experimented with using women as platoon (10–15 soldiers) commanders for new male recruits in noncombat units. Women who served with all-male units were perceived as having a civilizing effect on men, who, in their presence, were less likely to engage in vulgar language and behaviour. They also supposedly brought a touch of home to the otherwise cold military world of boot camp.
The military provides important opportunities to develop the social networks so vital for access to information and support, as well as to people, places and jobs in civilian society. The military provides men with more opportunities in this respect than it does women. Men serve for a longer period and often in more varied occupations and locations. Reserve duty brings together people from many different walks of life who might otherwise not meet one another. Serving together creates social bonds of mutual obligation that bypass status differences in civilian life and often extend beyond the service.
Civilian employers view the military as a valuable training ground for general competency as well as specific skills. In some occupations, the link between the military and the civilian sector is institutionalized, most noticeably in the high-tech industry. In other fields such as certain security-related jobs, a specific type of military experience is a condition for entry. When senior officers enter civilian organizations, they frequently bring with them other officers who were their colleagues or subordinates in the military. Once in the civilian sector, they recruit fellow veterans with whom they weathered emotionally charged experiences, who have proved their worth and loyalty, and who “speak the same language as they do,” almost always men.
The relationship between the military and women’s status in Israeli society is circular. A feedback-loop dynamic leads from women’s marginalization in the military to women’s disadvantage in civilian life and back again. First, the gendered processes by which women and men are incorporated into the military intensify the perceived differences between them and marginalize women. Second, the differential treatment of men and women in the military and women’s marginalization produce differential opportunities for mobility, privileging men. Third, the advantages men derive from military service are converted into advantages in civilian life. Military elites slip into roles in civilian elites where, by reproducing military gender attitudes and culture, they contribute to the reproduction of gender inequality in civilian society.
Despite its importance as a site for gender reproduction, until the end of the 1970s the military was not a focus for interest-group formation and mobilization in feminist politics. The brilliant military victory of 1967 was an affirmation of male hegemony and endowed the military with almost sacred proportions. After the 1973 war, when the Israeli military was caught inadequately prepared, the symbolic wall that had protected it from public criticism crumbled, creating a social climate that was more receptive to a critical reconsideration of women’s status within it. The emergence of a feminist movement in the 1970s created the consciousness that there was a gender problem, and the work of the prime minister’s Commission on the Status of Women (1978) and similar public forums provided both a mechanism for gathering systematic data and an arena for discussing the issues and constituting the problem of women’s inequality. The Knesset committee on the status of women, established in 1992, was an important factor in putting pressure on the military to implement greater gender equality.
The 1995 Supreme Court decision in the case of Alice Miller v. the Minister of Defense (HC 4541/94) was a watershed in the military’s position regarding women. The military had refused to allow Alice Miller, a new immigrant who possessed a degree in aeronautical engineering and a pilot’s license, to take the entry examinations that determine qualification for the most prestigious pilot training course. This was the first time the Supreme Court intervened in a matter of gender discrimination in the military. It instructed the military to invite Miller to be tested for admission to pilot training and, if successful, to admit her to the course. The Court rejected the military’s claim that its differential treatment of men and women was merely a ramification of gender distinctions embedded in the law and that given these a priori legal distinctions, the principle of gender-equal treatment did not apply to the military. It also rejected the military’s claim that its differential treatment of men and women rested on relevant differences between them and therefore constituted a permissible and not invidious distinction. Finally, the Court rejected the military’s argument that the high financial cost of adjusting the conditions of pilot training to women’s needs, as well as the difficulties involved in personnel planning caused by women’s reproductive and mothering roles, were legitimate reasons for unequal treatment.
The Supreme Court acknowledged differences in the law as making gender a relevant basis for differentiation, but then placed the obligation for correcting or neutralizing the effects of relevant differences on the military. In its decision, the Court stated that the military must take into account the different life experiences of women, which include pregnancy and childbirth, and accommodate its policies regarding requirements for the participation of pilots accordingly (Ziv 1999).
On January 10, 2000, the Knesset amended the Security Service Law to grant every female soldier the same rights as a male soldier to fill all positions in the military. However, it also provided the military with an escape clause, a compromise necessary for getting the law approved. The law stipulates that if the nature of a position requires that it be filled by a man, doing so will not be considered an infringement of women’s rights.
In 2000, the Chief of Staff announced a new policy regarding women’s inclusion in reserve duty based on the assumptions that women would serve in places where there was a need for and a shortage of men. In 2000, six thousand six hundred women were included in the list of potential reserve recruits; in 2001 eleven thousand, in 2002 seventeen thousand while the plan for 2003 is twenty-six thousand. In the first four months of 2002 only ten percent of the potential actually served, but the forecast was that the figure would reach thirty percent by the end of the year. The majority served for less than five days. Women in the reserves served in first aid, medication disbursement, centers for distribution of gas masks, rooftop observation of incoming missiles, and the border police. Given that married women and mothers are exempt from reserve duty, women will on average serve until twenty-six years of age. Their inclusion, however, has important symbolic value and their likely increasing value to the military may result in a shift in military policy regarding women’s reserve duty.
Some Israelis favor eliminating compulsory military service for women. Radical feminists argue that as an instrument of violence, the military is inherently a masculine organization that is oppressive of women and violates women’s value of life. Some liberal feminists contend that releasing women from compulsory service would give them a head start relative to men in higher education and thus compensate them somewhat for the cost that motherhood exacts from their careers. The majority of Israelis, however, oppose such differential treatment, both on principle and in recognition of the symbolic importance of military service for civilian life. These different perspectives are carried over into the debate about the assignment of women to combat roles. Those within the military who oppose it include among their arguments the question of women’s ability to meet the physical and psychological requirements of combat roles and the practicality of their placement with men in close quarters such as tanks.
Given the qualified wording of the law granting every female soldier the same rights as a male soldier to fill all positions in the military, military practice will determine the future course of women’s participation. Given the strong resistance within the military to women’s participation alongside men in combat roles, it is likely that change will be gradual, restricted, and subject to backlash despite the symbolic inroads made by a small number of women assigned to combat roles and units. Moreover, the process of opening combat roles for women has not been a linear process of progress. Rather, it has been a circular process in which short term inclusion of women in combat roles was followed by long term exclusion to be followed by another short-term inclusion.
Furthermore, a backlash in women’s status in the army might come from the direction of religious Zionist rabbis who claim that religious male soldiers who serve alongside women will be prevented from observing the Modesty laws. Their objection to gender integration in the army constitutes a serious constraint on women’s opportunities in the military.
In sum, the potential for gender equality afforded by Israeli women’s compulsory military service was not evident in the past, has improved in small ways in the present, and is not likely to improve in the near future.
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How to cite this page
Izraeli, Dafna N.. "Israel Defense Forces." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 17, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/israel-defense-forces>.