Monday, October 15, 2012

Heroines in the IDF

In Israel, military conscription is virtually a national consensus. Not that every 18 year old enlists, because there are broad exemptions to the compulsory military draft law. But there is a consensus within the broadest reaches of Israeli society that serving in the army is a badge of honor – a responsibility and a privilege.

Periodically the issue of the draft of the ultra orthodox attracts headlines and even now there is talk and serious differences of opinion regarding that contentious issue. But an even more interesting and provocative issue is the role played by religious women in the army, particularly in combat units. This subject gained national prominence several weeks ago when a 19 year old female combat soldier of the Caracal Battalion killed two terrorists who had shot Cpl. Natanel Yahalomi one of her male colleagues as they advanced into Israeli territory. It was her decisive response that saved her fellow soldiers during this Egyptian border clash.

A Hebrew website www.mattat.org.il is helping influence religious high school students by encouraging them to consider military and even combat service instead of opting for National Service – Sherut Leumi - which was the service option most religious women chose. Sherut Leumi girls work in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and a broad range of important social service organizations, and their contribution makes a valuable impact on the lives of tens of thousands of needy Israelis, but it’s not the same as being inducted into the army. Given the work they are doing, some believe that their contribution to Israeli society exceeds that of most soldiers. Indeed, Sherut Leumi volunteers work with their hands, brains and hearts, but they don’t carry rifles!

The motivation of many of these young women was captured in a blog post written by E., a religious woman who is about to complete her final year of training to become a pilot, who wrote: “Being religious should not prevent you from making an important contribution. Army service for us looks difficult, even impossible. But when you get to that bridge you find a way to cross it. And many positive things come to you on the way, good friends and help from above. Believe in yourself and don’t fear the big challenges.”

E. is not the only one heeding her own advice. Currently, 1500 religious women enlist annually. Over two years of service there are 3,000 religious women soldiers, plus another 1,000 officers, a total of 4,000 religious women in uniform. They work in education and training, intelligence, the ground forces, in combat, computers, the Medical Corps, as military welfare counselors. But military service isn’t the best choice for every religious woman, and those who have done it are the first to make that point. According to Michal, who served as a combat reconnaissance instructor, “if you can’t stand up in front of a classroom of male reservists who haven’t seen a woman for a long time, or if you need to be in a religious environment, the army isn’t for you”.
Photo courtesy of the IDF

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