Israeli Women Face Unofficial Obstacles in Fight for Equality in Military Service

   •    August 10, 2012

Two women participating in an event on a stage

Lt. General (Ret.) Orit Adato speaks at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in January 2008. A member of the Women in Security and Policy Forum, General Adato has recently been advocating to maintain women’s access to leadership positions in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Anyone who follows Israeli politics has seen a roller coaster summer. Centrist party Kadima joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition government two months ago; they have since dropped out.

The political issue that led to the coalition’s breakup has been disagreement on how to incorporate religious students, long permitted an exemption to study religious texts, into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). While many women agree that the widespread exemption needs to end, they’re also concerned that incorporation of religious soldiers will adversely affect women’s leadership.

Women in Israel face few formal barriers to their participation, but the informal decisions made by low-level commanders can impede their ability to advance. Many ultra-orthodox soldiers won’t serve with women due to their religious views, and there is a lot of pressure from the ultra-orthodox community to ensure the separation of men and women within the military.

The IDF must set clear, specific standards to ensure that women retain their right to serve and to give them opportunities for advancement. Unless they do so, commanders may bend to pressure from religious organizations to remove women from posts. In recent months, observant male soldiers have walked out of ceremonies with female singers, and four female soldiers were removed from their artillery battalion when it was announced that religious soldiers would join.

As the government has debated models for recruitment, the Israeli Women in Security and Policy Forum, a coalition affiliated with Inclusive Security, testified in front of a Knesset committee to share their recommendations on how to incorporate religious soldiers while, at the same time, retaining opportunities for women’s advancement.

Keep in mind, in Israel, high-level military service isn’t about only about a career in defense. Often, individuals are expected to have a security background in order to be influential in the political or business spheres as well, so excluding women from military leadership affects their representation across every element of society.

Since Israel has compulsory military service, both men and women must follow up their high school education with several years in the IDF. However, this required service for both sexes rarely leads to equal representation in the top military leadership.

Forum members have recently advocated for women to maintain and increase their influence in the IDF. Forum members have argued that, with women involved, decisions about war and peace would take into account the long-term perspectives often missed by men. They see the potential for more robust consideration of the changing nature of warfare, its effect on civilians, and how to build a culture of peace.

Dr. Ofra Gracier, a senior research fellow at The Institute for Intelligence Research in the Israeli Defense Forces, has done military training for both the IDF and for US forces. She was also one of three Forum members to testify before the Knesset committee on May 31. Among other things, the Forum members called for a new model of service “that sets one standard for all soldiers and is based on merit, not gender” and a quota that ensures women are included in high-ranking positions.

Dr. Gracier followed up with a blog post that shared more of the group’s perspectives and recommendations. Her overall point is that women are often the casualties of competing religious and military goals. She and others are working to ensure that doesn’t happen this time.

Rebecca Miller is a senior program officer at The Institute for Inclusive Security where she leads Inclusive Security’s work to support women leaders’ participation in peace processes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. She also strengthens Inclusive Security’s partnerships with like-minded organizations and mainstreams gender in the peacebuilding community.

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