April 2017

The Girls in Green

They go in as girls. They come out as soldiers.

By Lynn Wexler

Think of a soldier.

Likely the image in your mind is that of a burly hunk with a buzz cut and an intimidating stare, dressed in camo, and laden with heavy combat gear. Or, depending on your generation, you might have gone straight to the little green plastic GI Joe surprise buried in your now vintage Cracker Jack box.

This time, think female soldier.

Whatever you conjure, it’s likely not a beautiful, teenaged girl, with long silky hair, fashioned in a mandatory ponytail, flashing a radiant smile, dressed in similar camo, and carrying a 3 foot, 8 pound Uzi submachine gun, slung over her shoulder at the ready to fire 950 rounds per minute at a moment’s notice.

Meet the young ladies of the IDF – soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. That provocative image, in most countries, would trend as a fashion spread in Cosmo. In Israel, it’s the real deal.

Whether training and serving as fighter pilots or mechanics, weapons or combat fitness instructors, snipers, border patrol guards, or heavy munitions and communications experts –model looks aside, these young Israeli girls can strip down an M4 as quickly as they can exchange their camo for a bikini.

Israel is one of the only countries in the world where female conscription is the law for all women ages 18 to 26. At a time when many young people are getting tanked at college parties, these gals – together with their male counterparts – are undergoing extensive physical and disciplinary training to deploy for active duty. That’s not to say that young Israelis don’t indulge. Just that they get an obligatory call to duty early in life.

Compulsory service is currently two years for women and three for men, with extended service opportunities based upon skill and position. Women may request exemption from military service if married, pregnant, mothers, or it conflicts with religious observance. Those granted exemption spend their service years as volunteers in hospitals, old age centers, with needy children, or involved with other worthy causes. One way or another, everyone serves.

“Women have been part of the Israeli military since before the founding of the State,” said Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister from 2013 to 2016, in an online interview. “In the Warsaw ghetto, in the partisan units fighting the Nazis, and in the pre-State underground freedom fighting militia’s, women were active members. Many proved themselves under fire,”

Service to country, by all its citizens, remains a cornerstone of Israel’s survival.

In a speech to the newly minted Israelis shortly after the 1948 War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, said, “Since you rightly believe that the security of the State must be pursued night and day, I want you to know that that security will not exist if our nation’s women do not know how to fight. We are few – and our enemies are many. If, heaven forbid, a war falls upon us, the men will go to fight the enemy, and if, heaven forbid, the women who are protecting their children at home do not know how to use a weapon – what will be their end if the enemy falls upon them?”

Following the War of Independence however, it was argued, and decided, that women would no longer serve in combat roles, largely based on the realities of falling into enemy hands.

“It was fair and equitable to demand from women equal sacrifice and risk, but the risk for women prisoners of rape and sexual molestation was infinitely greater than the same risk for men,” said Ya’alon.

Women’s rights groups challenged the status quo throughout the years since. In 2000, a victory created an amendment to the Equality in Military Service law which decreed that, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.”

The desire to serve is just as strong among the girls as it is among the boys. From an early age, girls acquire expertise in military jargon and culture. They know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that each soldier will be assigned to the task where their contribution will be the greatest; that the needs of the army take precedence; and as women they are an invaluable and integral part of the country’s defense force, having shown themselves to be worthy in every respect.

As reported on the IDF website, today 88% to 92% of all roles in the IDF are open to female candidates; and women are currently serving in 69% of all positions, including pilots and special forces. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, women were involved in field operations alongside men for the first time since the 1948 War. 

Noa Peri-Jensch, Regional Director of the Israeli American Council, Las Vegas, remembers her service some 26 years ago in the IDF’s Intelligence Force, during which time Saddam Hussein was firing chemical weapons into Israel. Her unit was responsible for collecting and decoding encrypted information from Israel’s enemies.

“I will never forget the day I reported for duty. It’s a day that all young Israelis come to expect, but not all of us are prepared for. I was a kid, barely 18. The whole family took me to Bakum, the base near Tel Aviv, for orientation. I carried a small backpack with only a toothbrush, make-up, toiletries, and sweat clothes to sleep in. I was transferred from the care of my parents to that of the government,” recounts Jensch. “I was given a military ID and serial number, uniforms, medical shots, and I had to pull my hair back, off my face. I was assigned to a group of people that I didn’t know and put on a bus to the camp where I would live and train. I remember waving goodbye to my parents through a window. It was hard.”

“I may have gone in as a kid but I came out as a woman,” Jensch continues. “No matter the branch of service, we all had to learn to assemble, clean and shoot a military grade weapon.”

Despite gender equality among many of the branches of service at that time, Jensch nonetheless felt that chauvinism was prevalent.

“My greatest fear was that my commanding officer would ask me to get him coffee. For me that would be humiliating…like reducing my skills and knowledge to that of an errand girl.”

She took a proactive stand and told her commander that she refused to succumb to the task of fetching coffee. Jensch got lucky. Not only did her commander agree, he asked if it would be okay if he got coffee for her!

Romi Amid was born in Tel Aviv, lived with her parents in Las Vegas for 10 years, and returned to Israel for military service when she turned 18. She was ushered in through a program called Tzofim Garin Tzabar that helps the ‘lone soldier’ acclimate to military service in Israel whilst their families reside elsewhere.

Having only recently completed her required service, Amid had more opportunities than Jensch did back in the early 90s. Of the two options for service she was offered, she chose the more physically demanding – a heavy artillery instructor.

Amid excelled and was soon chosen to be a heavy machine gun instructor responsible for training every combat soldier serving at that time. She also served as an instructor for the IDF Officers Training Course for soldiers who want to be officers upon completion of their mandatory service.

Amid accomplished all of this by the youthful age of 22.

“There is nothing better in the world to teach you about life and yourself than being in the army. It was the best two years of my life. You learn to appreciate warm water…showers with heads instead of hoses,” says Amid. “The scariest and hardest part for me was granting permission for combat boys to use heavy machine guns – killing machines – in battle. I have to be confident that I’ve trained them at the highest level of performance.”

Yarden Adam, who completed his service a few years ago in a special unit akin to the U.S. Navy Seals, feels that mixed gender units are more comfortable and productive.

“It’s like being in jail with only men. Women are often more helpful and understanding,” says Adam. “…and they can also multi task to a far greater extent than men.”

Adam tells of an incident when his unit was on a dangerous mission having to cross the border into Gaza. His then girlfriend, serving in a different unit as Border Police, held the crucial job of monitoring multiple camera screens to ensure border security.

“I was confident knowing that she was the one responsible for keeping us safe through a watchful eye,” says Adam. “I may be able to carry and shoot. But she can cover all other skilled responsibilities better than most any man

Fraternizing among the genders, within a unit, is closely scrutinized in the IDF. “The rules are very serious. A breach can land you in military jail,” says Amid.

“You can shake hands but that’s all. No hugging, no hand holding, no comingling in the living quarters, and no hanging out alone after hours,” she adds.

Incidents of sexual harassment exist – as do a few scandalous postings by a handful of IDF women on Facebook, subsequently disciplined. Jensch, Amid and Adam nonetheless agree that the level of earned respect between and among the genders – the pride they feel for the important job they do and the bravery exhibited in the service of protecting the Jewish state –outweighs the controversies.

So, should you find yourself in Israel - out on the town on a Saturday night - and spot a group of beautiful young women hanging out at a street side café, each with an M-16 casually slung over one shoulder, they are likely on leave for the weekend. Feel free to marvel, but beware…you’re looking at the real deal.

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