Israeli Women, Part 1: Ace Pilots Reporting for Duty

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As of 1996, if you were a woman, you could be a pilot in the Israeli air force. As of this year, you can keep being one even if you’re pregnant.

The Times of Israel reports that “the IAF…has opened the skies to pregnant pilots and navigators” and that “transport plane pilots will be allowed to fly until the 25th week of pregnancy.”

It was in 1995 that an Israeli woman named Alice Miller, who was already a civilian pilot and an IAF officer, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to strike down the IAF’s ban on female pilots. In 1996 the court ruled in her favor, and since then about 35 women have received their wings from the IAF.

It’s part of a general trend where more and more women are filling combat roles in the Israel Defense Forces. About 3% of its combat soldiers are now women, including 70% of the Caracal infantry battalion, 10% of the artillery corps, and 6% of the Border Police. Also this year the IDF appointed Oshrat Bachar as its first-ever female battalion commander.

One might think all this would make Israel a hero of the feminist left. But you’d be more likely to stumble upon an Israel Apartheid Week exhibit on a campus than see the left give Israel credit for much of anything these days. 

PJ-Israeli women-2It is not that women in combat roles are something new in Israeli history. In the prestate period and the 1948-1949 War of Independence, there was not much choice; the community was under Arab attack and outnumbered, and there simply weren’t enough men.

As Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion put it:

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?

But women did not only “protect their children at home.” In the prestate period more than 30% of the Palmach militia were women, including nine platoon commanders. In the 1948-1949 war many Palmach and other women fought in land battles. I still remember, as a kid in the 1960s, the iconic, romanticized image of the “Israeli woman warrior” on the covers of paperbacks and the like.PJ-Israeli women-3

By that time, though, the image was a bit anachronistic. Although the IDF—again for manpower reasons—instituted universal conscription for both men and women from the start, after the War of Independence it barred women from combat roles. That started to change again, gradually, in the late 1970s; by 1987, when I did basic training in the artillery corps, one of our shooting instructors was a woman. When she fired at a can a hundred meters away, it jumped all over the place.

By now 90% of all IDF combat positions are open to women. Again, this might be seen as something of a feminist revolution if the left’s sympathies hadn’t shifted to the Palestinians, whose record on women’s rights is not something to brag about.

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Meanwhile yet another poll (reports here and here) has found that Israelis, despite the military burden that has never let up since the prestate era, are a happy lot. Eighty-eight percent said they were happy with their lives, up from 83 percent in 2002.

And they want to keep having children. Currently the Israeli Jewish birthrate stands at 3.04 children per woman—highest in the Western world. In the poll, 40% of Israeli Jews said they wanted to have three children, 17% wanted four, 12% wanted two, and only 1% said they wanted to have just one.

Although I do not keep up with the feminist left, my impression is that, in light of these findings, perhaps Israel could not be so appealing to them after all.

True, along with female combat pilots, infantry soldiers, a battalion commander or two, and the like, Israel has had a woman prime minister, Supreme Court justices including a president of the Supreme Court, cabinet ministers including one who has been a deputy prime minister, and so on. It seems like striking a great balance: providing almost unlimited opportunity while maintaining strong family values. But “family values” does not have a positive ring for everyone.

Whatever. It takes an open mind to understand and appreciate a society that was forged in war and enshrines life, that is both deeply rooted and cutting-edge innovative, that is great at both guns and Google. Actually, a pregnant air force pilot is not a bad symbol of the whole thing.