JERUSALEM — Nothing about Sarah Ben-Or, a grandmother who offers tea and cakes on her good china, suggests that she was once a soldier in one of the world's best-known armies.
Fifty years ago, she fought to help the forces of the new Jewish state battle to maintain a foothold in Jerusalem.
Officially, women were discouraged from combat roles. But when Arab armies seemed to be gaining the upper hand, Israelis fighting on limited manpower welcomed womanpower wherever they could find it.
So Mrs. Ben-Or, who led an auxiliary youth battalion, took up arms. "I am against the idea of 'Let others do it for me,' " she says.
Today, there isn't a woman in the Israeli army playing such a front-line role: Since 1949, women have been barred from combat units.
Lt. Gabby Blum is the closest thing to an exception. She fought to win a place on a negotiating team in Israel's "security zone" in Lebanon, the last active front.
The women's stories show a policy tailored to suit the times. But the role of women in the army has broader implications: As Lieutenant Blum points out, a stellar career as combatant is a key to success in Israeli society.
Having earned a law degree before entering the army - the Israeli Defense Force - for mandatory service, Blum was assigned to the international monitoring committee that meets in south Lebanon to address violations of the "understandings" reached in 1996 between Israel and the guerrilla group Hizbullah (Party of God).
Since the job involves entering enemy territory, Blum had to fight even to be assigned to the four-member delegation.
"There was a lot of hesitation about agreeing to send me," Blum says. "It took a lot [to convince] the other commanders. No one was questioning my ability as a woman or as a lawyer to do the job; the problem was the location." The unofficial theory behind the policy is that Israel fears the possibility of its women being captured and abused.
In the end, no major extra provisions were made for Blum: She shares a barracks with the three male soldiers, and gets an escort to the nearby UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) headquarters in order to shower.
Blum is pleased with her job: The committee is the only place where representatives of the Iranian-backed guerrillas and the Israeli army regularly talk to each other, and its existence is credited with keeping the tit-for-tat volley from escalating into a full-blown war, as it did in 1996.
'What did you do in the army?'
But if she had the opportunity, Blum says she would have volunteered for a combat unit. She knows a lot of other women who would do the same.
"The military plays a very central role in society and politics," says Blum, whose freckles and jet-black ponytail make her look young for the job.
"If you're a woman, it's: 'What do you know? You didn't climb up mountains and shoot big weapons.' It forms a lot of differences in society later, so I think it's important that women be allowed to serve in combat."
In Israel, she points out, the question of what one did in the army often comes right after basics like "Where are you from?" Plum positions in the public and private sectors are traditionally awarded to men with military careers that come complete with war stories. If army service is left off a rsum, a potential employer will often ask why.
"In the US, a woman can choose to have a military career," Blum says. "In Israel, you don't choose; you're going to the army. So the question is, do you want to want to be a clerk or do you want to do something meaningful?"
One member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has been fighting to win access for women in all areas of the army, division by division. Naomi Hazan, from the civil rights-oriented party, Meretz, launched a battle on behalf of one woman trying to gain entry to the elite fighter-pilot course.
The woman finally won admission in 1995 and then dropped out, but the precedent was set. Now there are several women in the course. Whether they will get to volunteer for combat is unknown.
Ms. Hazan says that the part of the law barring women from combat was inadvertently changed 10 years ago when a section was deleted, but military policy keeps the prohibition in force. Rather than passing a duplicate law, she says, the army needs to be forced into opening up all units of the army to women. "The whole legal basis for the prohibition doesn't exist," she says.
For decades after the War of Independence, women's jobs were mainly clerical and secretarial. But as women began to push for better jobs in the 1980s, Hazan says, opportunities improved.
Now, the proportion of women in clerical jobs has been reduced to 30 percent. And elite units - such as the intelligence corps - are now more than 50 percent female. Many women serve as combat instructors, teaching men how to use weapons and tanks. Now, Hazan is trying to get the army to grant admission for women into the Israeli equivalent of the US Navy Seals course.
Military barriers can carry over
Limits on women's roles in the army spill over into the entire work force, especially civic and political life. The proportion of women in Israel's parliament, Hazan says, is one of the lowest in the world. Only nine women were elected to the 120-seat Knesset in 1996, while 17 seats were taken by ex-generals and colonels.
And though Israel produced one of the world's best-known female leaders, Prime Minister Golda Meir, no woman has since reached such status.
Blum thinks the reasons behind the ban against women in combat - their own protection, and the public's sensibilities - ring hollow. "I don't think my parents will be more sad if their daughter is killed than if their son is. If the majority of the Israeli public has a problem with that, I think the army needs to make the first steps to change it."
Ben-Or, the veteran and a retired biologist, doesn't agree. Fifty years ago, she and her compatriots were not sure if Israel would live to see its first birthday. Today, she says, the Israeli army has more than enough men to fight. She says that the few women who can meet the physical rigors of joining them would be uncomfortably outnumbered, as she was in her army days.
"It asks too much from the girl, and it's not right to put the boys on such a trial," she says. "Women should fight for roles in all areas of life, but the army is different. We have to admit that there are differences, and things for which women are more suitable to doing."
Ben-Or points to her own moment of truth. Her unit had been sent in to relieve soldiers at a front-line post in Jerusalem. When Jordanian soldiers moved in for an attack, she shot at their legs.
"I wasn't afraid to tell the story later, that I was afraid to shoot. But why didn't I shoot to kill? That was my duty."