Israeli Women in Combat Units: Natural or Cultural?
Meeting with students from other countries I have often been asked whether it is true that women in Israel must enlist to the army: “Is it true that you have women in combat units in the Israeli army?” While I was wondering how to reply, it was already at the first minute that I have mostly felt happy to note to my friends that we even had a woman pilot in the ID F.
This question as to whether women in Israel must go to the army might have seemed conservative if it had been asked by students who think that women should stay home and be submissive to their husband. Surprisingly many times this question was presented to me by secular European and American student friends
Most of the time I was wondering to myself why this should be a surprise for everyone? Isn’t it already a social fact that women can do and perform as well as men in any category that they will choose? “Yes, of course it is”, I replied. “It is not that we have never seen successful and talented women in Europe and elsewhere”.
If so, why is this so surprising?
In order to answer this I believe we should look at the differences between our definition and understanding of natural and cultural social phenomena and mainly to our way of defining what is natural. During history it was assumed that owning slaves is a natural phenomena. The intelligence difference between the owner and the slave was conceived as a natural reality. Assuming it is natural social reality or social phenomena we have to try to accept whether we like it or not there was not any serious problem with the phenomena itself. In these circumstances it was not seen as an abuse of other humans ‘basic rights’. We also know that many theological and spiritual explanations were given in order to legitimize the existence of slavery. Furthermore, I believe it would not be completely implausible to believe that these in favor of slavery arguments were also seemed convincing for the slaves themselves. So if everything looked natural where lies the problem?!
It was during the 18th-19th century that things have started to change in favor of the slaves. A this historical point we witness interesting social phenomena. After slavery was abolished it stopped to be described as natural and the entire institution seems as unjustified.
Why have I started my discussion by focusing on slavery? Maybe it is because this distinction that we do between cultural construction and natural phenomena apply also to our way of conceiving the social role of women in society. Is it natural for a woman to enlist to a combat unit? We know that women are biologically designed to give life, so maybe a combat unit can not be the natural place for them?
During history and especially in patriarchal societies the individuality of the woman was not respected, we can even say that women were oppressed. It was only lately in the 20th century that women gained the right to vote or the right to become a university professor. The process of women emancipation is still continuing in the western societies, especially in the Scandinavian countries where we can see many women that serve as public representative in government. It seems that the historical process of exposing the historically natural social position of the women as a mere distorted social construction is common to two processes: the abolition of slavery and women emancipation. So does enlisting to combat fields units can be conceived as part of this historical process? Maybe we went too far with our wish to overcome natural barriers between men and women?
I believe there can not be a definitive answer that does not also have to depend on the circumstances. Of course, it would have been great if no one had to enlist to the army. However, peace has not come yet to the Middle East. Furthermore, the Jewish people learned from history that it can not have a future without having its own independent country protected by an army.
So if we want to continue to be part of this historical process that has been taking place in the western civilization during the last century we have to say ‘yes’ to every woman who thinks she is capable and also willing to enlist to combat unit. No nation can proclaim that it is part of the western society until it respects the individuality, wisdom and free will of half of its population even when it looks to some of its citizens that their wishes are ‘unnatural’.
I believe that it is possible that women combat soldiers would not lower the standards in the army, but maybe even improve these. Hopefully, this historical process might some day even allow women to serve higher positions in the army. Closing army positions for Israeli women would be a kind of social gender construction that most open minded citizens would never be able to accept.