Redefining the Israeli Defense Force�s Feminine side

By Julie A. Sergel

Six Female Israeli IDF Soldiers, photo courtesy of Rachel PapoThe July issue of Maxim magazine offered a “Women of the Israeli Defense Forces” photo spread, which some termed a “pornographic campaign.” Turns out, the strategy was in fact, a government sponsored push to evoke a sexier depiction of Israel to American males in New York.

The photos of Israeli models—former IDF soldiers—in swimsuits along the beaches of Tel Aviv, was said to be an act of “Zionism,” according to one 25 year old former Air Force sergeant who participated in the Maxim photo shoot. David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Israeli Consulate General in New York, explained that they were just seeking good demographics. “Israel’s image among New York men aged 18-38 is lacking.” Saranga figured the spread in the popular men’s magazine would offer “an image they’d find appealing.”

Women members of the Knesset felt differently. Former Consul General of Israel in New York, MK Colette Avital, said, “This pornographic campaign sponsored by the Foreign and Tourism Ministries is an outrage.” MK Zahava Gal-On, chairwoman of Meretz, echoed thoughts, “It’s unfortunate that the Israeli consulate chose to emphasize Israel’s relevance with a portrait of a half-naked woman, instead of with one of women of substance and accomplishments.”

Still, officials maintain, the idea was to shift the perception away from the notoriety of conflict. “Israel is viewed as a very macho society. We want to show that we are a normal society like others,” said Saranga. A celebration was hosted in New York by the Israeli Consulate and Maxim magazine, celebrating the affair by offering formal invitations marked by a racy photo with 2004 Miss Israel, Gal Gadot, in a bikini.

Apparently Maxim is not the only organization that had female Israeli soldiers on their mind. This September, a special committee put together a report, updating the job description for women serving in the armed forces. It was announced that no units would be barred from women serving in the IDF—including combat duty. The swirl of attention from all points of view is forcing the role of Israeli women soldiers to be strangely redefined.

The actual service of women in the armed forces is by no means a point of controversy in Israel. Since 1959, a Defense Service Law requires all citizens and permanent residents of the state to carry out military obligations. Prior to that, history records women guarding and protecting Israel stretching back to biblical accounts and prominently in 1948, as the “Chen,” or Women’s Corps was borne—with women aiding the War of Independence, engaged in full combat. In 2001, Lt. Roni Zuckerman became the first woman to reach the status of fighter pilot. Four years later, Ornah Barbiai became the first female head of an IDF Corps, and was granted rank of Brigadier General—not exactly the same story told by Maxim’s glossy photographs intended to coo American males’ imaginations toward Israel.

As with the sexy tourism thrust, the recent IDF commission to enter women into all army units gives rise to varying response. The draft report, summoned by Major General Elazar Stern, IDF personnel department head, is soon to be presented to the IDF, and reveals the new role of women soldiers. Equal opportunities are being offered, allowing women to serve in all army units and with equal terms of enlisted duty. This is an attempt to maximize women’s abilities and create a greater armed force based on individual capabilities, rather than gender. The report is said to serve as a tool for long term planning, with the goal to implement within the next five years.

At present, women between the ages of 18 and 26, who are physically fit, unmarried, with no children, who do not object for religious reasons or grounds of conscious, must fulfill their military obligation to serve and protect the State of Israel for a period of one year and nine months. (Men are required a three-year term.) After 1948, women were no longer allowed in combat. However, in the late 1990’s and beyond, women began assembling in more combative positions. In 2001, the Women’s Corps disbanded and integrated into the general army staff, no longer serving as an independent unit.

The idea that women should be barred from frontline duty based on the increased probability of becoming a prisoner of war has been dismissed as part of the new report’s recommendations. IDF figures find 1,500 women serving in combative duty—2.5 percent of female conscripts. Last summer’s Second Lebanon War offered mild numbers of women firing artillery, serving on naval vessels, piloting, and working as weapons system operators. (Those recruited for combat serve longer lengths—30 months verses the standard 21.) Even last year’s death of flight technician Keren Tendler didn’t draw public backlash as suspected.

Women have long served as combat instructors, training male troops, although more recently, they’ve been stationed as Border Police, in anti-aircraft units and field intelligence detachments. Yehudit Ben-Natan, retired general of the now dissolved Women’s Corps, made comments in support of women’s total integration. “The heart and soul of the army is combat, and if we are in the army we need to be at its heart. Let there be tanks with all-female and all-women missile batteries, because we can do it, and we must stop allocating duties by gender.”

Retired Major General Yaakov Amidror staunchly disagreed, telling the Associated Press that women are many times better than men in rear-echelon jobs (military intelligence), but went on to say they’d never be a match physically in front line units. “If anyone thinks women are going to fill the fighting ranks, they’re wrong,” he said.

Another factor is the protest of Orthodox Jews--who make up a hefty 50 percent of the armed forces--regarding close quarters of males and females. MK Rabbi Yitzchak Levy, of the National Union party, has petitioned that the IDF reject such recommendations of integration “enabling observant soldiers to serve in the army without violating their religious principles.” Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of the Tzfat, broadcast comments on army radio regarding mixed-gender fallout, sharing the predicament of his son, in close confines in a Hummer jeep with another male soldier and female driver for lengthy times. “It’s simply unfair to his wife,” said the rabbi, who also predicted a drop in motivation among the army reserve’s most virile group—the religious, should this occur.

Response from the Haaretz news post discussing the pending commission yielded little support for the idea of women carrying more of the brunt of front line duty. Overall, most comments resided with thoughts from “Baruch,” of Boston, MA, (USA): “Israel is falling into the same trap as Western Europe and the US. Radical feminists are denying society the right to recognize that men and women, normal ones, are fundamentally different. They are physically different, spiritually different, and have a different purpose in a normal society. To deny the obligation of men to defend their women and children is short-sighted. In the end, some time in the future, an army of all men, perhaps Islamic, will over-run the screwed-up army and society that will exist as a result of all this distorted thinking. The Torah says women should not wear the military clothing of men. Israel unfortunately is letting itself be ruled by angry feminists.”

The tipping point for resolve in discerning the truth all parties seem so intent on revealing (women of the IDF) is Serial No. 3817131. This army tag belongs to Rachel Papo, who at the age of 18 served in the Israeli Air Force as photographer. Serial No. 3817131 has evolved into a photographic account of the lives of young women serving in the IDF, capturing the vulnerable and transitory state “from girl to woman, teenager to adult” amongst “a complexity of emotions”—incongruent with the tourism campaign offered by the men’s magazine. “Rather than portraying the soldier as heroic, confident, or proud, my images disclose a complexity of emotions” many times capturing (the soldier) “questioning her own identity and state of contradiction,” says Papo.

The birth of the project came from her own requirement to resolve such a marked period in her life. Born in Columbus, Ohio, but raised in Israel, Papo returned to the states after service, and completed her education in Columbus and then New York City, where she received her MFA in photography. Regarding the project, Papo shares, “The girls I encountered were so immersed in this lifestyle, in their new reality, and completely divorced from the outside world. How could I explain to them that what they are doing now will mean nothing in the outside world, yet will affect them for the rest of their lives?” Papo is currently working on a book of images from the series (which have been on display most recently at the Hebrew Union College Museum) and hopes to “shed some light on a side of the Israeli Army that is less obvious and predictable and more vulnerable than the way it is commonly portrayed.” To view Rachel Papo’s Serial No. 3817131 images, visit:

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