Israeli army's 'girl stigma' Equality: Even though Israeli women are drafted into the army, they are barred from combat and a third serve as administrative assistants or secretaries.

December 01, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ASHKELON, Israel -- The Israeli soldiers at the firing range of Training Camp 4 waited for a woman in green army fatigues to rap them on the back. When she did, Cpl. Efrat Sarfaty also barked an order.

An anxious recruit responded by jamming an ammunition magazine into his rifle, swinging into position and firing -- as if at a terrorist. When he hesitated an instant too long, Sarfaty shouted: "Go on! Go on!"

"They are afraid of me," the 20-year-old said matter-of-factly, her eyes scanning the line of soldiers. "They know I'm the head of the platoon. If I don't want them to go home for 21 days, I won't [let them]. And they know it."

Israel is the only country that requires women to serve in the military.

Their service has been both needed and problematic for Israel's commanders, a duality mirrored at this seaside basic training camp:

The majority of the company commanders at the Ashkelon camp are women. But the men

they train aren't destined for the prestigious combat units. These recruits, many with medical or behavioral problems, will work as electricians, cooks, drivers or medics.

Women fought to help establish the modern state of Israel in 1948, but since then they have been banned from combat duty. Barred from serving in elite fighting units, women have less opportunity for advancement. And they serve shorter enlistments than men -- 21 months instead of three years.

"The stigma is that you're a girl and you go to the army and make coffee," said one former soldier who worked as a counselor during her military service. "There are girls doing very meaningful jobs."

Israeli women soldiers train tank gunners, operate radar stations on the border with Lebanon, monitor intelligence data and serve on naval tugboats.

But a third of the women in uniform work as administrative assistants or secretaries. The traditional nature of Israeli society has made it harder for women to break out of traditional female roles even in uniform.

High-level bias

The bias of some Israeli leaders hasn't helped.

President Ezer Weizman told a woman lieutenant who wanted to be a pilot: "Listen, missy, have you ever seen a young man darn socks?"

Col. Gershon Hacohen, the commander of a prestigious tank brigade, explained last year to a group of high school students that, "Men are traditionally warriors, while women were always whores."

Only this year did the military issue an order prohibiting the use of women soldiers as hostesses for VIPs or at military events. It took a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 to open the air force's pilot training course to women.

Young Israelis come of age in the army. Known as the great equalizer, it brings together Israelis of various ethnic, religious and social backgrounds. For many 18-year-olds, this is their first time away from home.

'Much self-confidence'

Elinor Yani decided she wanted to do more than pour coffee during her time in the service. She sought a base away from her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzilya. She applied for officer candidate's school.

"It gives you so much self-confidence," said Yani, a 21-year-old drill instructor at the Ashkelon base, whose tour of duty ends in three weeks.

"When I was in high school, I never thought I could stand in front of boys all day and tell them what to do."

Na'ama Frostig -- 21, her uniform a comfortable size too big -- hopes to make the military her career.

Frostig is one of seven company commanders at the Ashkelon base. "I started out as a commander of 50 soldiers, then 60, then 100," she said. "I like the job."

When she passes a group of soldiers, they stand at attention. It's only in recent years that women have been assigned to train and supervise men, an opportunity related as much to technological advancements as affirmative action. More non-combat jobs have become available -- radar operator, air traffic controller -- and women are encouraged to take them.

But some male soldiers have trouble taking orders from a woman.

"Did you hear the tone of her voice?" said soldier Ahikam Friedman as a woman officer shouted an order to his unit. "That's annoying."

Even among supportive colleagues, women soldiers suffer an occasional sexist remark. "She's a very good officer -- and she's beautiful," said Ofer Lazmi, a male member of the air force. He was referring to Sheeckma Oven, a squad leader at Ashkelon.

When a visitor inquired about the whistle Frostig wears around her neck, base commander Col. Micha Margolit said proudly, "She whistles and everybody jumps. Just like my wife at home."

Camaraderie and romance

Military service is part of life here. As such, men and women soldiers share a camaraderie and closeness that can be familial and intimate.

Soldiers in Israel socialize regularly and openly. Dating is common, although commanders are barred from relationships with subordinates. Pregnancy is grounds for discharge, but career soldiers can marry and have children while on the job.

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