Can a Glass Ceiling Be Olive Drab?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.