Miriam has brought (don’t ask) to my attention an interview in today’s Los Angeles Times with Major General Orna Barbivai, Israel’s highest-ranking female officer and commander of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate. In it, MGen Barbivai talks about some of the challenges of integrating two almost diametrically opposed groups into the IDF’s ranks: women and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men.
The story so far: despite Israeli myth and legend, women were sidelined into clerical and rear-support roles in the armed forces between 1949 and the late 1990s, when combat pilot training finally opened to women. Now women are allowed into 90% of specialties, including artillery, search and rescue, the Field Intelligence Corps, the K9 special forces unit Oketz, and the Caracal light infantry battalion. Despite this, women are still not regularly employed in the infantry or armored units that see most of the combat and create the most senior IDF officers.
At the same time, successive conservative governments have allowed tens of thousands of Haredi men to avoid national service by way of a religious-studies exemption that just a few years ago covered only a few hundreds of rabbinical students. This has caused a great deal of resentment among the non-Haredi Israeli majority, who rightly look on it as a blatant political payoff to the ultra-religious parties that keep Likud in power.
MGen Barbivai says in the interview, “Combining the ultra-Orthodox draft with meaningful service for women will take careful, wise implementation and require a balance between the draft and universal values of equality,” especially since the Haredi believe in strict separation of the sexes in almost all spheres of life. “The task is to create conditions that allow men and women to share any environment effectively, not only a combat environment.”
As for the performance of women in the combat specialties already open to them:
We have women pilots, and women who carry out operational assignments over the borders and beyond the lines with great success. We’ve turned a mental corner on this and I think there are no more psychological blocks to women in operations or questions about their capabilities.
However, she also admits, “The army’s mission remains training the mass of its soldiers for the battlefield and, for now, women are not there.”
[BTW: By “operational assignments over the borders,” she may be referring to female Mossad agents, recently lauded by Mossad director Tamir Pardo (as highlighted in this post).]
The general calls the U.S. decision to assign women to ground combat units “a fascinating move… perhaps we will learn from it too.”
Read the full interview here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/middleeast/la-fg-israel-soldiers-qa-20130330,0,6774151.story.