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