Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit
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From mayhem to mayor: Israeli women on the move

The answer to whether women are 'up to the job' is clearly a resounding Yes! So why aren't more of them in policy-making positions?
A female IDF combat soldier inside a tank. (screenshot: Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A female IDF combat soldier inside a tank. (screenshot: Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Last week, Israel held its once-in-every-five-years municipal elections. Simultaneously, its five-month war in Gaza continued. Each were (and are) covered widely, but quite separately, in the press. They are actually connected, albeit their great influence will be felt in future years.

As today is International Women’s Day, it is altogether fitting to ask: war and women – what’s the common denominator? The answer: female empowerment. Let’s start with the war.

Since the 1990s, Israel has been involved in a running controversy: to what extent should women serve in combat roles in the IDF? To make a long story very short, by the early 2020s they were incorporated into approximately 90% of all IDF units – from Air Force pilots and navigators to battlefield paramedics, tank commanders, and border lookout observers (tatzpitaniyot). The latter became critically important leading up to the Gaza War, when for months beforehand they warned their male officer bosses about very suspicious, Hamas offensive training movements – but to no avail. When Hamas did attack on October 7, many of these women heroically fought off the Hamas marauders, even trampling some of them under IDF tanks the young female fighters drove themselves! And they continue to be a critical part of the fighting in Gaza as well.

The argument as to whether women “are up to the job” is basically over. The answer is clearly a resounding YES. Indeed, just last week IDF history was made with the announcement of the first woman to head an entire Air Force base. The one remaining issue is how to incorporate female fighters into infantry units with religious male soldiers who have a problem sleeping in the same tent (and even serving together in the same confined tank). But that’s a minor issue. The future is clear: given that the IDF has already admitted it needs more manpower (very recently raising the service period for recruits and extending the age of reservists), a decision to widen the number of positions that women can fill in the IDF has become a no-brainer. Need more manpower? Try womanpower!

For feminists (and the country in general), that’s the good news. However, when we turn our attention to the municipal scene in Israel, the picture is far from acceptable, although the recent elections did provide some heartening news. Nationwide, in the previous term of office only about 10% of city council members were women; that now has increased to about 15%. As for mayors and heads of regional councils (the equivalent of mayor for small moshavim, kibbutzim, and other towns in a specific geographical area), of the fourteen previous women mayors, eight won their election, seven new ones were voted into office, and a few more should win the second round runoff this coming Tuesday. A step forward, but hardly a giant one for womankind. (If you don’t think that Israel needs more women in policymaking positions, you might want to read my essay from last year.)

How is this connected to women in the IDF? For entirely understandable reasons, Israel has always looked to top, retired IDF officers (or those with a “heroic” reputation) to lead the country. A short list: Rabin, Dayan, Shamir (pre-state service), Sharon, Kahalani, Netanyahu, Mofaz, Gantz, Eizenkopf, Gallant, and so on. As noted, women did not serve in any “serious” roles until the 1990s, and thus it took a couple of decades to reach high level positions and ultimately make it into politics (e.g., former IDF spokeswoman Miri Regev).

But can they reach (near) the top? Here too the recent municipal elections provide a clue. Ron Huldai (another former high level IDF officer) has been the extremely popular mayor of Tel Aviv for five terms (25 years!) – virtually invincible. Until last week. Orna Barbibai, a retired, major general (the first woman ever to achieve the IDF’s second highest rank, as head of its Manpower Division), ran against Huldai and came very close to unseating him.

However, it is not merely the attainment of a high-level army position in and of itself that will make a difference. The “problem” with many women (in general) is that they don’t have the same high degree of self-confidence that most men have (many males, though, suffer from a high degree of overconfidence in their abilities). Serving in the IDF is an excellent antidote, as many young women IDF fighters have admitted. Proving not only to others but to themselves that indeed “they can do it,” is a huge step forward to ambition in “real” life as well. After all, when you’ve made it through very tough basic training, then succeeded in stiff officer training courses and finally leading men in combat, also making decisions as equals with male colleagues in times of war – well, running a city is easy compared with that! (Even if not quite true, but at least the confidence is there to succeed in political affairs equally as well).

Wars have many unintended consequences – many negative, but some surprisingly positive. In the coming years, Israel will find that the female genie once released cannot be returned to its bottle. Quite the opposite: this genie will bring many fresh, human resources to the country – not only militarily but especially politically.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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