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Women in elite combat units? Go for it!

As the people's army, the IDF – yes, even the IDF – is obliged to uphold the principle of equality and let women serve anywhere they are qualified to serve
A soldier from the Lions of the Jordan Battalion participates in an exercise on June 8, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flickr)

Whatever our political views or our emotional response to the IDF, one thing is indisputable: The IDF is one of the most advanced militaries in the world. Its air force, for example, possesses the most sophisticated aircraft, cutting-edge air-defense and missile-defense systems, superlative technological capabilities, and units whose activities are unparalleled.

So, in light of all this innovation and progress, one cannot help wonder how it is that the IDF is still wedded to a process of assessing draftees and assigning them to specific roles that reflects outdated norms, with gender being the first and foremost criterion. How is it that the first thing the IDF looks at when assessing draftee is not their physical capabilities, their intelligence, or their social skills, but rather their sex? How is it possible, in 2022, that a young woman can perform better than all her peers in every aspect of a military preparation course, be an outstanding athlete, and be motivated to give everything she’s got, and yet- for the IDF, she remains above all- a woman?

Let’s start at the beginning: The IDF is one of the only militaries in the world that conscripts women under the terms of a mandatory draft law. Following the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Alice Miller (who sued to be allowed into the air force pilots’ course), the Defense Service Law was amended in 2000 to enable women to volunteer for roles from which they were previously excluded.

Since then, more and more IDF units have been opened up to women, as can be seen in the data: In the 1980s, just 55% of the roles in the IDF were open to women; in 1995, this figure reached 73%; and since 2012, 86% of the units in IDF have been opened up to women. According to IDF data, there has also been a significant rise in the number of women soldiers in ground forces, an increase of more than 160% in the last six years. The same data indicate that women now comprise some 18% of the IDF’s combat forces. However, frontline combat units remain open only to men.

A war of narratives

One of the important milestones in women’s enlistment and placement in the IDF and in public discourse on the issue was the enactment of a pilot program in the IDF Armored Corps. This experiment began in 2017 and was crowned a success in 2018 by the Chief Armored Corps Officer and then Chief of Staff Eizenkott, but was then suspended, due to manpower and infrastructure considerations, subsequently expanded again, and is currently awaiting final assessment by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi (according to reports, the evaluation will be positive).

When the pilot program was suspended, a petition was submitted to the Supreme Court that paved the way for additional cases demanding that women undergo the same intake and assignment processes as men and be allowed to serve in accordance with their capabilities, including in special units such as Sayeret Matkal and Egoz.

In response to this wave of petitions, Chief of Staff Kochavi announced the establishment of a team to examine the inclusion of women in combat units to be headed by a major general. The team has already submitted its findings to the Chief of Staff, who is expected to decide on this issue in the coming months.

The question of how the IDF should assess and assign female soldiers to their roles encompasses a host of technical issues, alongside economic, health-related, and organizational considerations. But, as the Chief of staff is well aware, the real question goes deeper than this, touching on fundamental values, and these are worth examining in greater detail.

In this context, it must be clearly stated that the IDF, like every other state institution in Israel, is obligated to uphold the principle of equality. Indeed, the IDF has a deep and longstanding commitment to equality, as is reflected in all its founding documents. However, with regard to the integration of women in the IDF, it has repeatedly been argued that the military’s purpose is not to promote equality but rather to achieve victory in combat. This is a manipulative argument rooted in conceptual confusion.

The IDF’s obligation to promote equality, including gender equality, does not derive from the definition of its purpose, but rather from the very fact that it is a public institution in the State of Israel, which is a democratic country. It would be absurd to claim that it is not the IDF’s job to obey the law and so we should also give little credence to arguments about the link between the IDF’s purpose and its obligation to equality.

As an aside, it is worth asking why this claim does not come up when the military, and rightly so, invests effort and resources into reducing inequality in other contexts, for example, when it adapts intake processes for technological units in order to enhance the access of candidates from Israel’s disadvantaged population groups or revises its draft process for the same reasons. These activities are perceived as the IDF fulfilling its obligation as the people’s army, to ensure equal opportunity, and are met with widespread acclaim. Why, then, when it comes to gender equality, does this acclaim give way to concern about the military’s resources?

Physical abilities

It should also be noted that there is no arguing the fact that the physiological differences between men and women are relevant to serving in units in which special physical abilities are required. Consequently, only a few women are likely to meet the minimal requirements for these units, and it is highly likely that women with average physical abilities will not pass the tests for entry and continued service in those units.

However, every woman has the right to be tested for her abilities and skills. Just as no consideration is given to the question of whether the average man would meet the necessary criteria for these units, the same should hold with regard to the average woman. Only a few men meet the requirements for the IDF’s special forces units, yet these units are not categorically closed to all men. Similarly, the fact that the average woman is unlikely to pass the entry tests for infantry units is irrelevant to the question of whether a woman who wants to exercise her right to try out for these units might be good enough.

Indeed, the integration of women into field units sometimes requires an investment of resources that can seem particularly large relative to the gradual process and rate of integration of female soldiers into those units. It is true that equality is not an absolute value and must be assessed alongside other considerations such as proportionality. It is also true that over time, we are seeing more and more women holding senior positions in the military for the first time, and in the very near future we will have the first-ever IDF General Staff with two women major generals. The General Staff is also working hard to increase the number of women officers in senior roles (though the IDF refuses to publish data on this).

Nevertheless, as long as the IDF fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of why a woman who is capable of doing so is not permitted to serve in elite combat units, it is lagging behind on an ethical level. International Women’s Day 2022 is an appropriate occasion for the cry: “Women, go for it!”

About the Author
Dr. Idit Shafran Gittleman is head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Military and Society program.
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