Air University Review, November-December 1978

The Israeli Fighting Women

myth and facts

Cecile S. Landrum

THE AMERICAN public has recently become more aware of the role of women in the military services. Questions dealing with the kinds of jobs women can perform, the numbers of women who can serve, the locations in which they can serve, and personnel policies that affect their status are all very much a part of the general interest in the all-volunteer force.

As a result, the Israeli military, the only force in the world to require full conscription for both men and women, has erroneously been looked on as the true example of equality of the sexes in the military. The image of the Israeli fighting woman, standing side by side with her male peer, rifle in hand, is a vision most Americans believe to be true. Yet it is an idealistic view of a country fighting for its survival. It is a myth.

The misconceptions of the role of women in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were first brought to light in 1974 by Colonel Verna J. Dickerson, a U.S. Army Reserve colonel who spent one month with the women in the Israeli forces as part of her Army War College research effort.1 Colonel Dickerson generally concluded that Israeli women serve in administrative and technical jobs requiring little or no training in order to free men for other jobs. The Israelis believe that minimal training of women is desirable because most women leave the military for marriage and motherhood. Colonel Dickerson also concluded that our military, under pressure to meet the manpower requirements of the all-volunteer force and in view of changing cultural attitudes, is going far beyond the Israel Defense Force with respect to equality for women.2

Despite Colonel Dickerson's findings, the myth has continued probably among a majority of Americans. In 1978, journalist Lesley Hazleton recognized these inconsistencies and wrote that "the women of Israel are still clearly second-class citizens, severely restricted by law and custom." She continued that "they move in a male world of reality in the false guise of equals."3 As to the role of the Israeli military woman, Ms. Hazleton stated that "the army exists to protect Israel's women, not to endanger them in its ranks."4

Utilization of the
Israeli Military Woman

All women are drafted into service as enlisted personnel at the age of 18 for 24 months.* The men serve for 36 months. The young women have several exemptions that ultimately result in only about 55 percent of the women entering the service as opposed to 95 percent of the men. Marriage, pregnancy, religious convictions, and lack of education are all reasons for exempting women from this obligation. It is significant that about 18 percent of the women are excused because of their orthodox religious practices and another 19 percent do not enter the services because they lack the ten-year minimum educational requirement.

*Most of this section is based on the author's visit in February 197H to the women's training base and interviews with the director of the CHEN (the Women's Corps of IDF), the deputy director at the women's training camp, and General Uri Talmor, Director of Personnel Air Force.

After completing their basic commitment, the women are assigned to a reserve unit and assume reserve commitments until they are 22, while men are committed (must serve) until they are 54. The rationale for this decision and many other policies is that women will probably become wives and mothers. Therefore, the country cannot afford to do more than train them minimally and expect no more than service in jobs that require minimal training.

The protective attitude that the men have toward the women clearly has an impact on their utilization. The men state that they have a great fear of their women being on the perimeters, crossing lines, or being taken as prisoners of war. An interesting note is that the military leaders are sensitive to what the concerns and demands of the mothers of these women might be. Since the women are so young and so close to home, their mothers are not only more aware of what is happening but their influence is also more significant than it is in our country. Therefore, much thought is given as to how the mothers will react to different policies. The women themselves enjoy this protective status and do not view themselves as being in competition with the men. They feel that they are joining the men to serve their country. Several of the women I spoke with said they feel that American women compete with their men.5 This feeling was also indicated in 1974 when the head of the Women's Corps (CHEN), Colonel Ruth Muscal, told Colonel Dickerson: "It is just as well that we have no significant 'women's lib' movement in Israel, at least in the military. In the IDF, we have neither the time nor the money to play around with it. Perhaps in a larger and more affluent country, which is at peace with its neighbors, it is feasible and worthwhile. But not in Israel."6

training process

All women conscripts train at one base outside of Tel Avi v for 3 weeks. This time period has been cut back since Colonel Dickerson's visit because of growing personnel requirements. The men, on the other hand, train for several months. The women live at the camp, and all their personal needs are met during that period.

The training itself is also quite different for men and women based on the different manpower requirements--and the economics of not investing heavily in women because of their short payback time. The women's training is basically a transition from freer civilian life to that of the more disciplined military way.

The women have no field exercises nor any night training. They do take a short hike, but more for physical fitness than for meeting any requirements. Their use of weapons is at a bare minimum, and emphasis is put on familiarity rather than use. Many soldiers carry their weapons to and from their homes when they live in certain outlying districts that could be dangerous.

The training serves as a means of explaining the military structure and mission to the women. Their role is presented as that of filling jobs that can free men for field duty. The women are then given a basic exposure to what men do. Despite the fact that a majority of the women were born in Israel, most of their parents were immigrants from such diverse places as Russia, Argentina, and South Africa. Thus, the military becomes a melting pot of the different backgrounds.

There are also distinct differences between the women from the kibbutzim (farm settlements) and those from the cities. The women from the kibbutzim are tougher, more independent, egotistical, know what they want, are very organized, and "know everything."7 The girls from the cities do not possess this level of self-confidence.

The main cultural difference is not with those who are from the kibbutzim and those who are not but rather between those women with an education and those without. Contrary to some people's thinking, kibbutzniks often have very high levels of education. Therefore, even with the cultural differences, the kibbutzniks have much in common with those from the cities who have similar educational levels.


It is difficult to get instructors for the women. Only female instructors train the women, and most women want to meet men and not just be exposed to other women. Furthermore, the instructors work overtime, and the work is hard and repetitive.

With the 3 week period of instruction and the continuing need for manpower, the training cycle is a sort of mass-production process. One group finishes on a Thursday, and a new group arrives on Sunday. This schedule leaves the instructors with little free time and little time for developing personal relationships. Since students do not leave the base during the week, the instructors and commanders must also remain on base.

Often the instructors are young women who remain in the military for a limited time beyond their initial commitment just to have a paying job until they enter school or a new job. They do not become regular soldiers and, therefore, do not mind the extra time as an instructor as much as someone who plans a longer-term commitment to military service.


Before training is completed, a special group of officers comes to the training base and sorts out the available jobs in the Defense Force. They then try to match the women's wishes with the recommendations of their leaders and the needs of the Israel Defense Force.8 The women also want assignments where they can most easily meet men, but they accept whatever is assigned them though they feel that most jobs are dull.

The women receive their assignments on the last day of training. Although they are assigned to a particular service according to their job, they are still controlled by the CHEN.9 They wear their branch uniform with the CHEN insignia on it. Each service has a CHEN officer who regulates policy regarding women. Each base also has its own CHEN officer who advises the women and resolves problems they might have. The women seem to want to maintain their separate status, apparently enjoying the privileges granted them.

officer selection

Neither women nor men, except for pilots, start out as officers. Women officers are selected through identification in training and by interview. Formerly, women were selected through a testing process during the training as it still is with the men. Since there is only a slight deviation of success in the selection process without the tests, it is more economical for the military to select women officers this newer way.

Most of the officers are about 19 or 20, but if a woman is a sergeant major for three years, she can become an officer, too. This can be a good source for officers as some of the qualified women do not initially enter officer corps training, often because they are not motivated to take on an officer's responsibilities at the time or they do not think of the service as a profession.

marriage and child care

Women conscripts are freed of their military obligations if they get married or pregnant. Only regulars have the option to remain in the military if they marry or have children. About 10 percent of the women conscripts become regulars.

Very few regular military women are married to military men. Several married officers told me that most people consider it too difficult for a married military couple because of mission requirements. The women with whom I spoke gave me the clear impression that it is more attractive for women to have military careers than for men (except for the pilots who are considered an elite group). One reason is that regular female military personnel can retire with full pensions at a much earlier age than male members. It appeared to me that whereas men were expected to serve in the military, maintain their reserve status, but go on and do other work for the country, the women had not really moved into the marketplace. This point was emphasized by Lesley Hazleton, who stated that only one-third of Israeli women work outside their homes. Most jobs women get are low grade. For example, Hazleton states that few top-ranking civil service jobs are filled by women, only two percent are full professors, one percent engineers, and six percent employers or self-employed.10

The small size of the country and the fact that service is required only within Israeli borders are factors that make it possible for a wife and mother to manage a military career without continually disrupting her family. Families continue to live in one place even when service members are transferred to another base; thus, a spouse's working situation need not be negatively affected.

On-base day-care facilities are provided from 0800 to 1600, and at 1600 military mothers go home to be with their children. Despite this arrangement, however, the country itself is not prepared for the growing numbers of working women. Schools still let out at noon, leaving many children alone or without supervisory care for several hours.

It was apparent to me that in Israel the family still comes first, and, despite the fact that the country is so small, women are still not very mobile. Military policy planners take this into account in their utilization plans for women. Woman's immobility was emphasized by the deputy director of the women's training camp, who stated that she has declined several jobs that were conducive to promotion because of her family's needs.

Nontraditional Jobs

Assignment of women to nontraditional jobs is a recent phenomenon in the Israeli forces. The decision to make this move was based mainly on existing shortages in manpower. Many women elected to move into these jobs when they became available because they found them more challenging and interesting than serving in what they considered dull desk jobs.

The military leadership carefully examined those jobs to which they felt women could adapt and decided to open the avionics, airframe mechanic, engine mechanic, and electronics fields.

Since women normally serve for only 24 months, some policy changes were made in opening these fields. It became necessary for women to volunteer to serve an additional year in order to enter these nontraditional fields. Since the technical training takes about a year, it was not considered economically feasible to train women one year for only a year's service. Some women did not like the idea of an additional year because they had made plans prior to their enlistment for the period immediately following their service. Completion of their education is usually their primary goal.

Presently, women stay in the technical training schools longer than the men (one year compared to 4-6 months) because the men in these fields have graduated from technical high schools and have the required basic skills. For the first time the Haifa technical school, with 3500 students, will have 25 to 30 female students next year. As a result, these women graduates will get the same training as the men when they enter the service.

Despite the advantage of technical training, the women will still have to comply with the three-year commitment, but they will benefit in other ways. There are two separate pay scales in the military-one for conscripts and one for the regulars. It was determined that women with technical training would get regular pay in their third year while men continue to draw conscript pay the entire three years. On the other hand, whereas marriage normally frees women from their service obligation, given the investment in the advanced training, women in the nontraditional jobs will not be released for marriage. They will get the regular salary upgrade once they are married if they are in the first two years of conscription.

The selection process for nontraditional job candidates has been designed very carefully. The Israel Defense Force can select the best qualified women for these jobs while the best qualified men go into pilot training. The women selected have a minimum of twelve years of education and high IQs, as determined by special tests that are also given to the men. The recruiting goal for each group graduating from basic training is 30 out of a pool of about 1400. The Israel Defense Force expects that 300 women will be in these career fields by 1979. The testing proves to be a screening process, but recruitment is on a much more personal level. A group of high-ranking personnel leaders and a win commander visit the women during their initial training. These leaders appeal to the women by telling them of their country's needs and ask them to volunteer. They tell them of the unpleasant things as well as of the positive aspects of the jobs. The military leaders pledge to fulfill any commitment they make to the women entering these fields; for example, women can refuse to go to certain base locations. The U.S. Air Force's new recruiting films, which address the full scope of the nontraditional jobs, have been recently viewed by the Israel Defense Force, which plans to incorporate similar films into the recruiting process. In addition, as a means of getting more women in these fields, policy-makers have sent letters to women already in service, asking them to serve in these fields. The military leaders, however, are still soul-searching the problem of how many women they can assign to these nontraditional fields. The military leaders feel that it has been good so far, and they are considering putting women into 15 percent of the jobs. However, they expressed concern about how women will do on the big engines.

General Uri Talmor stated that women have demonstrated they can do about 80 percent of the work. The Israelis agree, he found, that a woman's presence is better than not having enough men and doing nothing about it. Some men did not want the women, feeling that men can do a better job. But the real issue presented to them was that either there would be no men or only very low-quality men available. Therefore, having highly capable women to fill these gaps is a far better solution.

special program

A program has been established for a limited group of women who do not meet the minimum educational requirements. This program was designed partially to meet manpower needs but also in part as a social endeavor to help elevate some women from their poor backgrounds. The planners also took into consideration the fact that these women will be the mothers of future soldiers, and the leaders would like them to understand the ways of military life.

General Talmor, in his discussions with me, stated that about 500 women who have had only four or five years of schooling were selected for this program. They receive seven weeks of basic training, in which they learn such basics as manners, history, and culture. There are only four jobs that these women can hold, mainly very low-level technical jobs in the Air Force. I observed a group of these young women being trained who, on completion of their training, will be working as technical assistants in hospitals. These women expressed some displeasure at their pending assignments; they want to feel like soldiers, and working in hospitals does not seem a very soldierly role. Many of these women have come into the service with personal problems and require much attention. Despite the country's sense of urgency, the military leaders, in placing emphasis on these problems rather than working on defense, believe they are filling a social service to the country.

Women are required to reach the eighth year level of education before they can complete their military service. Some women, though, try to stay on in the service because of a lack of other opportunities.

women as pilots

Since in the past the D.S. Air Force had interpreted the combat restriction of Section 8549, 10 U.S.C., to mean that women could not fly planes,11 it was with great interest that the news of women training to be Israeli Air Force combat pilots began to circulate in late 1977. Actually there were women pilots in the Israeli forces 15 years ago, but that was stopped because the women were having problems pulling Gs; also, the men feared that the women would become POWS.12 The Israelis started training women pilots two years ago without changing any policies. These women had to pass the same tests as the men in order to enter the program. Since the Israelis train only attack (combat) and helicopter pilots and all planes must cross the border, by definition the women would be flying combat. The test program started with one woman. Four more were Subsequently added in groups of two. Four of the five Women had already attrited from the flying Course, and the day I visited the fifth woman was informed that she had not met the criteria to stay in the program. The dilemma the Israelis presented is that they train only for combat. Those who do not perform at the top as fighters become the cargo pilots-but only after they have completed the Very rigorous fighter training. Also, all their planes are consigned to combatants. Whereas women might make good cargo pilots, they, too, must first finish combat training in order to be selected as cargo pilots. The Israelis do not feel that they can afford to change the selection process or their training system to accommodate the few women who might become cargo pilots and remain in the military.13

Therefore, on 7 December 1977 the Israel Defense Force set forth a new directive precluding any more women from pilot training. It is apparent that the mission of the Israeli military and its existing culture create a very different atmosphere for the use of Women. Realistic manpower goals, economics, and the country's survival are the prime concerns of the country in determining its personnel policies.

The military role of Israeli women is and will continue to be predominantly a helping role, and their role as wife and mother will continue to be a dominant factor in determining their use in the military. Any comparisons. We make beyond the numbers and kinds of jobs in which women serve must reflect these cultural differences. The Israeli military woman certainly cannot be considered a role- model for the American military Woman. In fact, just the opposite may be true.



1. Verna J. Dickerson, The Role of Women in the Defense Force of Israel (Alexandria, Virginia: Defense Documentation Center, May 1974).

2. Ibid., p. ii.

3. "The Women of Israel," Time, February 20, 1978, p. 102.

4. Ibid.

5. In February 1978during a visit to the women's training camp and the air base where pilot training is conducted, I had the opportunity to speak to several women in the Israel Defense Force.

6. Dickerson, p. 13.

7. Although this may seem to be strong language, it reflects descriptions (using even Some of the same terms) made by General Talmor and the deputy director of the CHEN.

8. Most of the young women want to be assigned near their families. Colonel Dickerson was asked during her visit how the U.S. military managed to assign its girl soldiers within commuting distance of their homes in such a large country! Dickerson, p. 18.

9. CHEN is an acronym for Cheil Nashim (Women's Force). The Hebrew word "chen" also means charm. Since the majority of the women in the Israel Defense Force are about 18, they are called girls. Thus, CHEN refers to charming girls.

10. "The Women of Israel," p. 102.

11. The U.S. Air Force graduated its first group of female pilots in late 1977 and a second group in early 1978.

12. Interviews with Brigadier General Uri Talmor (Air Force Personnel Chief) and brigadier general-in-charge of the flying training school, Israeli Air Force, February 1978.

13. Ibid.

Acknowledgement: The photographs accompanying the article are used through the courtesy of the IDF Spokesman.


Cecile S. Landrum (B.A., Boston University) is a manpower analyst, Analysis and Evaluation Group, Assistant Chief of Staff, Studies and Analysis, USAF. Prior to 1976 Mrs. Landrum served two years as staff member of the Presidential Defense Manpower Commission. She has also served on the staffs of Senator Henry M. Jackson, Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill, and Boston Mayor Kevin. H. White. She is author several articles on the utilization of women in the military. Mrs. Landrum is a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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