In 1949, the Israel Defense Forces became the first military in the world to require mandatory service from both men and women. However, even though the IDF is comprised of both men and women, combat and leadership roles are still predominantly filled by men.
In recent years, the IDF has seen an increase in female recruits’ interest in combat service and the Search and Rescue Unit, which provides support during man-made and natural disasters. Physical Education Officer Lotem Stapleton, from the IDF’s oldest mixed-gender combat battalion, says to Reuters, “Today, 85% of [combat] positions are open to women. We are also talking about opening more and more positions.” Since 2000, the battalion has welcomed participation from female soldiers; however, only 7% of combat roles in the IDF overall are actually filled by women at this time. Though that number is small, it’s nearly double the percentage of women in combat positions in 2013.
Female combatants say they find their work in combat units more meaningful than any other work that they’ve done during their service in the military. Rachel Fenta worked at a desk for a year before deciding to join a combat unit, explaining her choice to pursue a combat role by saying, “I wanted to test my limits.” Yael Elbaz, who was drafted into a mixed-gender combat unit, echoes Fenta when she says, “It’s challenging and the most meaningful way to serve.” In fact, female recruits’ most common response when asked why they want to fill combat positions is that they “want to have a meaningful [military] service.” They want to test the limits of their potential and to help those around them in the process.
Furthermore, female combatants’ male counterparts praise them for the diversity they bring to the field. Reuters paraphrased Commanding Officer Matan Paull when he mentioned that the female combatants in his battalion tend to be “more creative and mentally flexible than their male counterparts.” While Paull did claim that women tend to get hurt more easily, Mai Ofir, a female member of the unit, responded, “Our bodies aren’t built the same, but just as a guy can shoot a rocket, so can a woman.” High-ranking women in the IDF agree.
Head of Search and Rescue’s basic training, Major Meirav Kraus, sees limitless potential in her cadets, regardless of gender. “I want the soldiers to know that there are no limits, no boundaries for our dreams,” says Kraus. “If you want to be the prime minister, if you want to be the chief of staff, if you want to be an astronaut, you can do it. You are able to do whatever you want. Don’t be afraid, don’t worry if you can do it or not, you can succeed.”
Major Shiran Hashay Levy, head operations officer of the Haifa District, is an example of what Kraus believes to be true. Levy joined the IDF in 2000, rose through the ranks, and sees herself continuing to grow and advance in the future. Moreover, Levy sees the IDF only getting better as it continues integrating women into every aspect of service. “Since I joined in the year 2000, the IDF has really come a long way,” she says, emphasizing that “the IDF needs the strength provided by women. I really think it’s impossible without us.”
Though military service is mandatory, the excellence and leadership these women bring to their respective units and districts are all their own.
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