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Why mixed-gender combat units are on the rise in Israel

Despite resistance from rabbis and former commanders, the number of women in combat roles in the Israeli army is increasing sharply. Demands for equality are just one reason: The army finds the move useful.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
An Israeli soldier from a mixed-gender combat unit uses machinery to reach missing people under the rubble during a training exercise simulating the aftermath of a missile attack.

Rain is pouring down and the soldiers in helmets and neon orange rescue vests are covered in mud, but the search for the missing under the massive piles of rubble continues for the third straight sleepless day.

The soldiers rummaging through the concrete slabs with gloved hands and operating hydraulic jacks are women alongside men, working in teams as part of their mixed-gender brigade.

Jackhammers used to break apart fallen walls shoot sparks into the heavy air, but in this case the missing people the soldiers are trying to rescue are plastic dolls, and the scenario of Israel being under nationwide missile attack is only a drill.

Standing just a few feet away, watching her soldiers work, is Capt. Yuval Rubin, 23, whose 86-strong company comprises a near-even mix of male and female recruits. They are six months into their training as part of a Homefront Command battalion that carries out search-and-rescue missions as well as patrols and operational duty in the West Bank. It’s one of four mixed-gender battalions in the country.

Captain Rubin and her soldiers are among the vanguard of gender-equality efforts in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In the last five years, the IDF says, the number of women in combat roles has jumped five-fold. Today, it says, 8.4 percent of women serving in the army are in combat positions, whether in these co-ed battalions, as pilots, naval combat officers, combat intelligence, the artillery corps, or other roles.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
Capt. Yuval Rubin, commander of a mixed-gender combat company in the Homefront Command, during a recent search-and-rescue exercise in Lod, Israel that simulated the aftermath of a missile attack.

The impetus for the changing role of women has been twofold: the IDF is acceding to rising demands from women for equality, but it is also seizing on the trend to free up other units to face more demanding military challenges.

Pushback

But as their profile rises in combat roles – the army is considering allowing women fighters in tank units as well – so does the pushback.

Some former military commanders say they fear that women fighters’ lesser physical strength compared with men’s will reduce the army’s effectiveness in war. And some rabbis from the Religious Zionist movement say it will be impossible in mixed-gender units to maintain traditional notions of modesty appropriate for Orthodox soldiers.

The army has worked to address their concerns: establishing orders, for example, for women soldiers to dress “modestly” during athletic workouts.

At the Lod exercise, Rubin is in full rescue uniform – combat boots, knee pads, and a neon orange rescue vest, with her long dark brown ponytail spilling out from under a helmet with a headlamp. Among her gear is also a chemical weapons suit, in the event she has to mount a rescue mission during a non-conventional weapons attack. When she’s on active combat duty, she carries an M-16.

“One of the main reasons I am here is because I understand that this is my country, I have no other place to live, and all the years before me there were soldiers who gave their service for this place, and now it’s my turn,” says Rubin, who grew up in the border town of Sderot, less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.

Motioning to the scene of collapsed buildings around her – an old neighborhood in the city of Lod that was partially bulldozed by the army for staged trainings like this one – she says the concept of being under attack is not an abstract one for her. From the age of six she grew up with regular missile attacks on her town.

“I grew up in the reality of war, and now we are in the midst of a missile attack exercise,” she says, explaining that her childhood experiences are why she was specifically drawn to serving in the Homefront Command, with its partial focus on search and rescue.

Romance in the ranks?

Among the Orthodox rabbis’ concerns, meanwhile, is the chance that romantic relationships between soldiers will interfere with the units’ missions.

Rabbi Ariel Bareli, head of a yeshiva in Sderot where both Torah study and preparation for military service is combined, has been one of the country’s most vocal critics of mixed-gender units. He tells his students it would be preferable for them to choose military prison over serving in such a unit.

“Soldiers need to think only of the mission of the army. When there are women in the unit it is a distraction from that mission,” he says in an interview.

Bareli served in the army himself in the mid 1980s in a tank unit, and he does not believe there can be women serving alongside men without posing a special problem for religious soldiers who are forbidden to hug women, let alone touch them.

According to him, part of the pact the Jewish people has with the Israeli army is not to go against the edicts of the Torah.

“As long as the IDF does what God wants, it will continue to succeed,” he says. “We can see someone has helped us from above before through the many miraculous victories we have achieved.”

Soldiers in co-ed units themselves laugh off the notion that romance would interfere in their mission. After working such intense and long hours together in the field, they can’t imagine seeing each other in a romantic way, they say in interviews.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
Two women serving in a mixed-gender combat battalion that is part of Israel's Homefront Command train in a recent search-and-rescue exercise in Lod, Israel.

“Ultimately we are like a family. We are 24/7 together and on sea doing patrols for hours and at work doing exercises. The male soldiers are like brothers to me,” says Sophia Zylbersztein, 20, who is in a mixed-gender unit of the Navy. Based in the southern port city of Ashdod, she and her unit patrol Israel’s southern border along the Mediterranean Sea.

The army has a strict policy of separate sleeping quarters and separate showers and bathrooms for male and female soldiers, even if they serve together. Women get special physical training, focused on building upper-body strength. There’s also a focus on iron and carbohydrate-rich nutrition for the women fighters.

Army's practical concerns

And although mixed-gender units are helping to bring a new level of gender integration into the IDF, the practical concerns are significant. When the first units were created in 2000, they were deployed to help protect Israel’s “quieter” borders of Jordan and later Egypt as a way to free up all-male battalions to be posted to other parts of the country.

The Homefront Command that Rubin and her soldiers belong to has among the highest levels of morale in the army, attributed most often in interviews to the search-and-rescue nature of their work. The other half of their job, being on duty in various parts of the West Bank – they are currently assigned to the area near Jerusalem – can have its share of tension, the soldiers say. But they say they feel proud to be able to serve the country there as well.

Rubin takes issue with those who criticize mixed-gender units or women serving in combat units in general.

“I have a company of 86 people and half of them are men, and I command them well and we work in full equality. I think people who are critical don’t know the reality in the field – they don’t see that it works and that it works well.”

As she is speaking, a group of men and women soldiers hoist a fellow soldier (acting as one of the wounded from the rubble) onto a stretcher and race by at full speed to bring him medical attention.

Soldiers owed 'meaningful service'

Rubin recalls joining the army in 2012 when she was one of a small handful of women in the company.

“There are lots of personal characteristics I have gained here that I don’t think I would have today if I had been in another position in the army or in civilian life,” she says. “Today I’m a serious combat soldier and that will stay with me – strengths to overcome challenging situations and confidence that I will take with me into the outside world.”

Brig.-Gen. Sharon Nir, one of the highest-ranking women in the army and the adviser to the chief of staff on gender issues, says “This happened in the army because we needed it to.”

Speaking from her office at the IDF’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, she says, “The number of women fighters is going up, and the number of clerks doing administrative work is down, thanks to computers.

“What is most important is that we find a match for people’s abilities and the role they take in the army,” she adds. “If we call on a young person, as we do, to come and give service during the best years of their lives, then we need to give them meaningful service to do.”

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