The recent flare-up in Gaza got me thinking about Miriam Schaffer – Our Heroine in Doha 12 – and her connection to that troubled area. Her experience ties directly into the history of women in Israel’s armed forces.
We’ve all heard the stories of Israeli female warriors during the 1948 War of Independence, and Israel has made a point of telling the world it drafts its women as well as its men. What isn’t as well known is that women were banned from taking combat positions in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) following the 1948 war, and from then until 1995 were relegated to “combat support” roles as clerks, secretaries and drivers. In a martial society such as Israel’s – where success in the IDF translates directly into success in the civilian world and the Army serves as the ultimate networking opportunity – this separation was a significant drag on women’s advancement in society. (Golda Meir was very much an anomaly.)
In 1994, Alice Miller, a 23-year-old aeronautical engineer and Israeli Air Force (IAF) officer from South Africa, sued for the opportunity to enter IAF flight training. Israel’s High Court of Justice agreed in November 1995 that barring Miller from competing to be a combat pilot was discriminatory and illegal. As a result, the IAF (and, slowly, the rest of the IDF) opened up to combat postings for women. In 2000 the Military Service Law was changed to read, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.”
According to the IDF, women now make up a third of military personnel and can enter 90% of specialties, including artillery, search and rescue, the Field Intelligence Corps, the K9 special forces unit Oketz, and the infantry (the Caracal light infantry battalion). More importantly, women now make up 51% of career officers (the ones who go on to become politicians and CEOs).
So where does Miriam come in?
Back in 1994, when then-Miryam Gottesman turned eighteen on her hated kibbutz in the far north, Alice Miller had yet to shake up the IDF’s policy on women in combat. There was, however, one exception. I’ll let Miriam tell it:
“I wanted to fight. It was 1994, women weren’t allowed in combat in the Army yet. The recruiter said, ‘I can get you a nice clerical job in Zefat, you can visit your family on weekends,’ and I said, ‘I want to get as far from here as I can, what do you have?’ He had the Border Police. I spent three years in Gaza.”
The Border Guard, or Magav, is like a more militarized version of our Border Patrol. It has the same training as the Israeli Army, wears the same uniforms and carries the same weapons. It’s basically light infantry with police training and without the benefits of artillery or air support, and has been called on to fight alongside the IDF during Israel’s various wars. For a healthy, strapping farm girl like Miriam with lots of unsorted aggression issues to work out, it was the perfect place to land. Especially in Gaza – unruly at the best of times and often in a state of near-rebellion – and she got to crack her share of heads. She’d have been happy to keep serving, but in 1997 she wrecked her knee in a fight with a Hamas scout. Instead of being made an instructor, she was sidelined into the office of Magav’s chief legal counsel as a secretary, fulfilling a more “traditional” woman’s role in the IDF. She left in 1999, married a gentile American Marine and moved to America.
What would Miriam think of this latest dustup? She’d have some choice things to say about the militants who fire rockets into Israel (her father was killed by a Hezbollah rocket) and would be happy to shoot any who came within range. Had she stayed on the border, though, and seen close-up the rising wretchedness and desperation of Gazans trapped between the Hamas government and the Israeli blockade, she probably would have mellowed in her feelings towards the ordinary Palestinians caught up in the unending conflict. Growing up wedged between the IDF on one side and Hezbollah on the other, she knew all about being stuck between two hard places.
Check this article (sorry about the source) for an extremely admiring look at women in Magav. This more recent article discusses a problem that would make Miriam vein-popping livid: the potential marginalization of female soldiers as more Haredim are drafted into the IDF.