By Maayan Jaffe, JNS.org
Photo Courtesty Israel Defense Forces
From the inception of the Jewish state to the present, Israel’s military has been anything but a male-dominated institution.
On May 26, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Less than three months later, the Knesset instituted mandatory conscription for all women without children. Today 57 percent of all officers in the Israeli army are women, according to the IDF.
The IDF recently highlighted the stories of a select group of those women on its blog, in a list titled “8 Female Soldiers Who Shattered Barriers in 2013.” The article, which featured women in a variety of military roles and from diverse backgrounds, said that in recent years women have “taken increasingly high-level positions in the IDF.”
The female soldiers included in the list “challenge stereotypes,” wrote the IDF. Among those listed are two soldiers originally from the U.S.: Cpl. Dylan Ostrin, from Houston, who made aliyah at the age of 7, and Sgt. Sarit Petersen, from Maryland, who is currently in the process of making aliyah.
Petersen, who recently completed her IDF term, served as a shooting instructor in the Nahal Infantry Brigade. Her job was to teach reconnaissance brigade soldiers (Special Forces) to use their weapons. Speaking from her parents’ home in Baltimore, Peterson waxed modest about being chosen for the IDF blog entry.
“There are awesome people doing awesome things in the army all the time,” she said with a giggle.
A 2010 graduate of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Petersen told JNS.org that she was “surprised” at her selection, though she was one of the first to hold her position in the IDF. Petersen trained soldiers slated for elite army units. They had already completed at least eight months of basic training, and often had several additional months of more intense training. She said that she and her colleagues would “sit for hours and hours” planning and analyzing how they were going to take these men from “regular soldiers to Special Forces—to even better.”
“We would spend hours and hours on an exercise list. We would look at their old ones, see what they had done and figure out how to make it harder and faster, how they could run more. Then we would go to the shooting range and make them do all of these [exercises] we had set up for them and they would do it,” she said. “We would do it first, to test it out, and then they would do it.”
Is Petersen good with a gun?
“Yeah,” she said. “I am a pretty good shot.”
Petersen said she shot her first gun as a 14-year-old on a vacation with a friend in Nevada; they shot cans in the desert.
“I thought, ‘Wow! I am really good at this and it is really fun,’” she reminisced, noting that she could never have dreamed then of her time in the IDF.
Other female soldiers on the list have vastly different roles. Take Pvt. Or Meidan. She moved to a southern kibbutz in Israel from Uganda. In November 2012, her town was a regular target of Hamas rockets. Today, she is an Iron Dome missile defense system operator. Also listed is First Sgt. Monaliza Abdo, an Arab-Israeli combat soldier. While most Arab-Israelis don’t even take part in army service, Abdo rose through the ranks to become a commander, teaching soldiers how to combat terrorism and other threats. In December, she completed three years of service—one more than the required number for Israeli women.
Lt. Amit Danon, a former Israeli national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, became a combat officer in the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion. She is also on the IDF’s list.
“She was one of the first women to become an officer in a combat unit,” Risa Kelemer, a commander who also serves in Carcal, told JNS.org. Kelemer, who is from Baltimore, said Caracal is the only co-ed combat unit in the world.
“Boys and girls play the same roles,” she said, noting that despite this she has felt little tension from the men she works with. “I encounter more difficulty when I am in civilian life. I meet someone who says, ‘You are a combat soldier? Girls aren’t combat soldiers!’”
Kelemer does not pretend to be as strong as her male counterparts, though she said she is able to hold her own. When it comes to an operation, however, she said each person has a role. Kelemer, for example, is a trained grenade launcher. Another female comrade is a sharp shooter. Another is a medic.
“Combat is not just running with 50 pounds on your back,” said Kelemer, “though we also do that.”
Katja Edelman, originally from Kansas and now a student at Columbia University, recently completed her service as a combat infantry soldier in the IDF’s canine unit. In that role, she worked with dogs in the field and trained them back at the base. She told JNS.org that the IDF “has a lot to be proud of regarding integration of women. … I felt like I had amazing opportunities in my service and was able to do many of the same things men do. … It was always important to me to demonstrate professionalism and capability to set the right precedent for a continued and hopefully expanded role for women in the IDF.”
Edelman said she did feel pressure to prove herself in the IDF, and she went to extra lengths not to show signs of fatigue “even if the boys were openly exhausted.”
“I feel that most women in male-dominated workplaces can relate,” she said.
Kelemer’s mother, Amian Frost-Kelemer, said she is “incredibly impressed” with and proud of her daughter. But she is also “petrified.”
“She believes she can do whatever the guys can do. She is really fast. But the weight they have to carry is not great for a woman’s body,” Frost-Kelemer told JNS.org. “Mentally, there is no issue. Physically, the reality is that as strong as she is, it is about heart—she is there for the heart.”
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan.