On May 14, 1985, the 37th anniversary of Israel’s founding (according to the secular calendar, 12 remarkable women gathered together somewhere in the greater Tel Aviv area. They were true “fighteriot” (Hebrew slang from the English word “fighter”) — veterans of the “Harel” Brigade of the Palmah, and all 12 had fought in the intense battles that raged in and around Jerusalem from March until the end of July, 1948, as part of Israel’s War of Independence (WOI), and met to provide testimony of their experiences.
Who were these women, and how did they end up in the midst of the heaviest fighting in the War of Independence (WOI)? When the war broke out on November 30, 1947, three Jewish paramilitary organizations existed in what was then British-ruled Palestine, all outlawed and actively pursued by the authorities. The Hagana, the largest and best organized, consisted largely of militia units but, in 1941, it set up a small and well trained full time force called the “Palmah” — a contraction of the words “Plugot Mahatz,” loosely translated, “Strike Forces.”
Women served in the Palmah from its inception until its disbandment in November, 1948,when the Hagana transformed into to the IDF (Israel Defense forces). Although the Palmah ceased to exist on paper, its units continued to operate until the end of the fighting in March, 1949. During those seven years, thousands of women filled its ranks, sometimes comprising as much as a third of the entire force.
The 12 women from “Harel” were among the last to fight on the front lines during the WOI. Even as these women fought in the blistering heat among the terraces and stones in the Judean Hills, the new army of the infant state — the IDF — struggling to organize even while fighting a war of survival, began removing women from front line combat roles as part of the transition from underground to regular army. The Jerusalem sector was the last in which women fought along with men rather than being reassigned away from the front, out of sheer necessity. By the end of the war, women in the IDF were relegated to non-combat support roles similar to the US and other western military organizations. They even had their own branch in the IDF, “Hen” (a contraction of “Hail Nashim,” the “Women’s Force,” the word also means “graceful” — not a very martial sounding label, to say the least).
It was not until the 1990s, starting with the Alice Miller case, in which Israel’s supreme court ruled women could train for combat roles in the Israel Air Force (IAF), that women began to take on front-line combat responsibilities in the modern IDF. Today, the IDF continues to grapple with the issue of integration of female soldiers in the midst of much debate over the limits of such participation.
When the 12 “Harel” fighters met in 1985 to discuss and share their experiences as women warriors fighting to secure their country’s independence, however, Alice Miller, the formation of “Caracal” and other gender-mixed combat units, were all in the future. As far as they knew at the time, they were relics, the now gone and, sadly, much forgotten women warriors of the Yishuv (Jewish Palestine). Fortunately for us, their discussion was recorded, transcribed and can be obtained from the “Dor HaPalmah” organization, one of hundreds of “testimonials” the organization makes available. Their stories have been preserved, thanks to the work of numerous volunteers and organizations such as “Dor HaPalmah,” “Yad Tabenkin” and “Bait Yigal Allon” to name only a few, and provide considerable insight into what women of Israel’s founding generation experienced when they wanted to serve their country by taking up arms and fighting its enemies — first, the British occupiers, then, Arab forces seeking to overrun the Yishuv and, finally, Arab armies invading the new State of Israel.
In addition to the hundreds of testimonials, numerous books and treatises have been written about the women warriors of the Yishuv, all in Hebrew. Recently, University of Tel Aviv professor Meir Chazan published a book “Modest Revolution: Women and Defense in Palestine.” Other books include “Tell me, Tell me!” by Aya Savorai Gozes (herself a Palmah veteran) and “Palmahiot” by Yoav Regev. (“Palmahai/it” is the formal term for Palmah “comrades,” as they called themselves, however, the slang “Palamhnik/it” was more widely used).
Some of the “Palmahaiot” themselves wrote memoirs — Netiva Ben Yehuda, called the “Blonde Demon” by her Arab foes, wrote an intense and insightful autobiographical trilogy about her experiences in the WOI; while Ziva Arbel, lionized in the press during the war as “The Girl with the Pistol” adopted that moniker as the title of her short but colorful autobiography, to mention only a few of the books that have been published about the Palmah and its female comrades — again, mostly in Hebrew. Netiva not only wrote books, she broadcast a popular radio program devoted to preserving the memory of the Palmah and the founding generation as a whole.
To be sure, not all women warriors of the Yishuv served in the Palmah. Some served in other Hagana units, as well as in the two smaller underground forces, Etzel (The Irgun”), and LEHI (“The Stern gang.”). Likewise, women fought in active combat during the WOI in other organizational frameworks and often as civilians defending their homes. Well-known politician Geula Cohen was member of both Etzel and LEHI, “sex expert” Dr. Ruth Westheimer was wounded in battle fighting with a Hagana militia unit, to name two examples
The experience of women in the Palmah, however, was unique in that Palmah leadership sought ways to properly integrate women into its ranks in a manner consistent with the socialist and egalitarian ideals of its founders and early recruits, particularly its first commander, Yitzhak Sadeh. Sadeh, inspired in no small part by the wide-spread participation of women in the Soviet Union’s Red Army. He and his adjunct, Yigal Allon, passionately believed that the Yishuv in Sadeh’s words, “could not afford to forgo the service of 50 % of the population” in its struggle for independence and so instituted organized recruitment of females.
Recruiting women into the Palmah was one thing, integrating them was quite another — many male commanders in the Palmah clung to traditional views of women as the ‘weaker sex,” who had no place in combat units or in the Palmah at all. Moreover, there was widespread hostility or sometimes just awkwardness among the male recruits towards the females. One well-known Palmah commander, Aharon “Jimmy” Shemi, once said, “I feel sorry for the rifle assigned to a girl.”
In another example, one Palmah commander confessed that when a woman named Zehava — whom he described as “a real Cossack” — was assigned to his unit he was certain she would retard the unit’s ability to excel at an upcoming exercise. He devised a plan to “persuade” her to drop out by taking his unit out in the field at might, ordering his charges to hit the ground and then ordering them up again the moment Zehava went down. But Zehava, unfazed, would spring up as soon as the order was given and managed to keep up with the men at all times. Grudgingly, her commander let her participate in the exercise. Afterwards, he admitted he was wrong about her and that she proved to be a valuable asset to his squad.
“Jimmy,” too, came around and lectured his male charged on the importance of treating their female comrades with respect and praised the contributions of women to the quality of the Palmah experience.
There are many similar stories of Palmah commanders who had to be won over to the idea of females training and fighting along side with the male recruits. Haviva Reick joined at the ripe old age of 28, but so impressed her commanders that one said of her “Haviva made me a feminist.” In 1944, Haviva became the first “Palmahnikit” to die in action, while on a dangerous mission to help the Jews of Eastern Europe, the same mission that cost Hannah Szenes her life as well (Hannah served in the general Hagana, but not the Palmah).
Not only did the young women — and sometimes girls — of the Yishuv have to struggle to gain respect and acceptance from their male peers or superiors, they often had to resist pressure from their families who sometimes disapproved of girls joining military units and serving in close quarters with boys.
Some women did not just gain acceptance, but became legends in their own right. One of these was Gila Ben Akiva, a strong-willed yet shy woman, remembered for her shock of red hair, strict vegetarian lifestyle, and blunt, confrontational style. Gila possessed strength and stamina that surpassed many of her male comrades. She was part of a mixed unit sent to participate in sea-faring training. The course commander decided to use the limited resources at his disposal and concentrate on training the men, leaving the women with little to do. Gila confronted him, demanding that the women receive the same training or she would return to her home base. “I came to learn sea-faring, not for a beach vacation.” He relented and Gila completed the course.
Gila would rise to the rank of platoon commander a rank only a few Palmahnikiot would achieve. Yet, despite her reputation for being tough-as-nails and her years of experience, her commander during the WOI would often refuse to deploy her platoon, even during heavy fighting in the Jerusalem corridor, using the excuse that he needed her platoon held “in reserve.” It was obvious to Gila and her friends that her male superior simply did not trust her, or for other reasons did not want to send a woman commander and her men into combat.
Gila’s close friend and comrade-at arms, Aviva Rabinovich (one of the 12 Harel vets mentioned above) likewise encountered hostility from some male commanders and comrades. A squad commander, she was once received the absurd request not to march in front of her men, as some were embarrassed at having a female lead them.
Another time, she and her men were bivouacked in a monastery with a wine cellar. The men broke into the wine; one got drunk and made a sexual pass at her. She barricaded herself in the building attic and refused to some down until the wine was gone and the men had sobered up. (Generally, the written record avoids discussion of sexual tension between male and female recruits, as one Palmahnikit remarked, “There was no hanky-panky.” Regardless of the accuracy of that statement, there was certainly widespread coupling — Yitzhak Rabin, Haim Bar Lev, Haim Guri and Meir Pa’il are but a few of the famous Palmah veterans who met their spouses, or whose spouses also served, in the Palmah)
Aviva did not encounter difficulties only from her male comrades — Aviva was wounded in one of the battles for “Radar Hill” (Moshav Har Adar today), sustaining a serious wound in her leg that required hospitalization and weeks of recovery. She related that some of the female nurses refused to care for her, due to their disapproval of her going on combat missions.
These are samples of the anecdotal record that documents the bias, frustrations and rejection that the would-be women warriors of the Yishuv endured in their struggle to gain acceptance as equals. As one palmahnikit observed, “If a perfectly healthy man fails [and is forced out], would any one consider discharging all of the men? But if a Palmahait so much as sprains her ankle, we feared there would be a [a mass discharge] of all of the girls. ”
Those males who had misgivings about women fighters cited numerous reasons, some of which are heard today from opponents of women in combat roles: Women lack the required strength to carry out difficult combat missions, women will distract the men and thereby reduce the effectiveness of the fighting unit as a whole (Yitzchak Rabin, future IDF chief of staff and prime minister held this view) and women would be more vulnerable than men if taken prisoner. One Palmahnikit, Ruti Bloch, who fought in several battles in the Jerusalem area and was wounded, related that her commander ordered her to stay at the rear of her unit so that the Arab side could not see that a woman was among the Jewish forces, for fear she would be singled out for killing or capture.
In the end, the Palmah did not fully integrate the female comrades into its combat units. As mentioned above, in the middle of the WOI, it was decided to withdraw women from front line combat roles. They were allowed to continue to serve as medics and radio operators even though, today, both are considered combat roles. One female fighter, Hava Letivsky, was in fact removed from her “front line” position as a scout, but returned to the front as a medic and was, ironically, killed in action while treating a wounded soldier on the front.
Altogether, 22 women, including Hava Levitsky and Haviva Reick, were killed in action while serving in the Palmah, as opposed to 1,185 men — most of these during the WOI. (As this article was being written, the IDF announced it found the body of Livka Shefer, one of the 22, who also died while aiding a wounded comrade, she was the only female IDF soldier whose remains had been missing). This stark statistic alone shows that, in the end, the egalitarian vision of full gender integration, sought by some, did not come to fruition, yet, in the words of Dr. Dganit Boni-Davidi, “The myth of the fighting women of the Palmah persists to this day… This myth can have great educational value, especially for those young people unfamiliar with the Palmah generation; but we must nonetheless take pains to ensure historical accuracy and keep the myth in perspective.”
However, even though full equality was not achieved, these women surely did not strive for acceptance in vain. In most cases, these pioneers did not want to fight their enemies so they could achieve gender equality; rather, they struggled for gender equality so they could fight their enemies. And many of them succeeded in reaching that goal, at least.
As Aviva Rabinovich wrote, “I never thought about boys and girls as being equals or not. That simply did not interest me. I thought then — and I still do today — if you are going to wage war, then it is necessary to bet everything on it. I never understood [those who acted as if] my blood was more precious than a boy’s blood. Everyone only has one life. Who has the moral authority to send 50% of the population to war while telling the other 50% to stay home?”
So what about today’s women warriors? What opportunities should they have and will they have to serve, and perhaps die for their country, as did 1st Sgt. Hadas Malka z”l nearly a year ago while patrolling near the Old city in Jerusalem? Whoever is charged with answering these questions would do well to study the experiences of Israel’s first women warriors.
David Shayne is an attorney living in Seattle, Washington, who has been researching the Palmach for the the last nine years, and is in the midst of writing a history of the Palmach in English. David can be reached at email@example.com. David would like to thank Dr. Dganit Bon-Davidi of Bar Ilan University for here guidance and assistance with this article, and the “Dor HaPalmah” organization, especially Dr. Eldad Haruvi for invaluable assistance researching the Palmah.