Some years ago, who did not believe that religious women will join the IDF, is now surprised. The times are gone when young women in their long olive colored skirts looked a bit out of time. At the opening ceremony of the independence day, you could see it often, the skirts getting shorter and according to the preferences of the female soldier.
Israel is one of the very few countries where military service is compulsory for everyone. Exceptions are women, usually religious women, who are married at eighteen and have children. They may quit the military service when getting married, but very few make use of it. Often orthodox women met their religious husbands in the IDF.
Before the foundation of Israel women have joined the Hagana or HaShomer in usual units, medical corps, communication, transport and intelligence.
In the war of independence 30% of the combat troops where women. Tough they have not been engaged in actual combat, out of 1000 fallen Palmach fighters where 18 women.
One of the Palmach fighters was Zahara Levitov, who after her study of medicine at the Columbia University in California was trained as a pilot. After her return to Israel she was engaged in several air combats. She died in a crash August 1948.
The compulsory military service for women was legalized by the Knesset in September 1949.
After the war of independence it was decided that women may not join combat units. Ben Gurion justified this decision: „(…)in an army and in a war is the reality of disparity, which makes it impossible to deploy young women into combat units. But an army requires also supporting units. The women are required to increase the fighting capacity of our nation in appropriate functions by releasing the men from such functions, so they might fight with weapons.“
I give him credit that he was worried about the destiny of female soldiers captured behind enemy lines or kidnapped from Israeli territory.
If I would have a daughter, I would resist her joining the combat units. But I would be very proud of her if she did.
Yael Rom, the first IAF-pilot received 1951 the desired wings. She flew as reservist together with a female co-pilot 1956 a DC 3 (Dakota) parachutists for missions into the Sinai. 1963 she left the IAF corps to take care of her family. She continued as a consultant for women matters in the IAF. In the 50ies, four female pilots have been trained in the IAF.
Afterwards the program has been suspended. In 2001 a female pilot finished her training as a combat pilot. Yael Rom commented it:
„I am happy, that after a long time we have again a female pilot. Now the IAF must find ways and means to engage more women.“
Women require, constitutionally, when pregnant, a particular demand for protection. Lt. Col. Dr. Yifat Ehrlich, the commander of the IAF’s flight medical unit summarizes: „… to date it is proven, if women insist, they achieve.”
Until 2014 pregnant women could not fly and had to serve in other sectors. Since then they may fly until their 25th week of pregnancy four hours per day. Before each start they must pass a medical check up. Maximum flight altitude is limited to 8000 meters and a co-pilot is required.
During 2010 a total of 935 orthodox women „only“ joined the IDF, the number increased up to 1616 in 2013, with increasing tendency. Those young women are not serving just in “simple“ sectors, such as instructors and education, but increasingly in combat units.
This is not a matter of course at all. Both chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, in their first joint statement insisted „… that it forbids any type of enlistment to the IDF (by women), and in doing so continues the tradition of the previous Chief Rabbis.“
The previous MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) warned that this attitude will undermine the respect for the Chief Rabbinate and said „The country has things that are important besides learning Torah. There is something more important than Torah study, and that is life and death.“ Hard words considering the significance of the Torah for Judaism, but understandable when considering, that learning of the Torah is, in the opinion of the classical orthodox, limited for men.
In view of the terror against Jews this has a new meaning. Where would be all the security guards, police men, soldiers, paramedics and lets not forget the members of the Chewrat Kadisha, if to them life and death is not more important than studying Torah? While the first groups are taking care of the survivors of terror the latter are attending to the victims of terror, to make sure that they are buried according to Jewish laws.
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan expressed difficult moral considerations: „Women and men cannot serve together in the field in combat – it is dangerous to security, a moral risk, the Torah opposes it, common sense is against it,” argued Rabbi Ariel. He firmly opposed female soldiers in combat positions in particular, instead promoting national service on a voluntary basis.”
Three young female soldiers are presented here, representing many other soldiers.
Sari Michal (21) from Netanya joined 2013 the Caracal Battalion, one of the toughest elite units in the IDF. Founded 2000 specially for women, at a time when they where still excluded from combat units. Requirements are the same for men and women, since the Caracal unit has been made a mixed unit.
Saris’ decision did not find large acceptance in her family. The religious Bar Ilan University insisted that women in the IDF must find a suitable place in volunteers programs.
„I come from a fighting family,“ Sari says. „My grandfather was an instructor in the Navy’s Shayetet 13 special forces unit, I have an uncle in the Givati Brigade, another uncle who is a combat medic, another relative in Intelligence Unit 8200, and they each contribute as much as they can. I have a female cousin who joined the Caracal Battalion a year before me, and when we meet on Saturdays we share our experiences from the service.“
Her story sounds like a who is who in the IDF. At the beginning upon request of her family she serviced at the Office of Defense. After some months she recognized that it was not her way to serve and joined the IAF and later ended up at the caracal unit.
The main task of Caracal is to secure the Israeli-Egypt border. More than 60% of the soldiers are women. In a crisis, she feels herself comfortable under her commander Einat Cohen.
Sari’s religious needs are well supported. Five other female comrades are religious as well. Her experience shows, that also during deployment it is possible to keep religious life. In fact, in she became more religious during her service.
Ornella (21) emigrated from France a year ago. She lived in Paris, in a quarter without Jewish educational facilities but with a large population of Muslims. She experienced their antisemitism very close. She never hid her Jewishness and sees herself as a Zionist since she was a kid. She is the first member in her family to serve in the IDF.
At first her family was worried. In their religious circle were no women serving in the IDF, but instead in the civil service. Finally, after her completed basic training, the parents were proud of her daughter.
Since March 2015 she is serving with the „Lions of Jordan“, a new mixed combat unit. Ornella has the full support of her commander. In her unit are 80 orthodox soldiers and she has no problems as an orthodox female soldier to fight along her orthodox comrades.
Hila Lev Ari (20) is serving in the emergency medical service at the home front. A terror attack 2002 in Netanya, with two guests of a hotel dead and many wounded, motivated her to join this unit to serve her country.
Hila is a single child and therefore one must understand that parents are reluctant with the decision. In meantime they are, no surprise, proud about their daughter.
Rabbi Leo Trepp wrote to this theme basic modernizations within the women’s rights in Judaism: „The new is always difficult and arousing. But renewal is the essence of Judaism. According to our laws and Jewish ethics women deserve equal rights in the total life of our community and forming her own life. Over time and proceedings also the right of women the word of Rabbi Kook will be preserved: The old will be renewed, the new sanctified.“
©esther scheiner, israel