Informal service: In the Israeli military, gays serve openly, women can let their hair down and everyone is on a first-name basis

Maya Cohen was in the Israeli army a decade ago, working as a secretary. She said she was proud to do her compulsory service and viewed anyone who did not serve with disdain.


By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 15, 2009

TEL AVIV, Israel — Female U.S. soldiers training in Israel recently couldn’t help but notice that their Israeli counterparts looked very different.

Their hair hung down their backs in loose, fetching ponytails.

“How is the mask going to fit over it?” asked U.S. Army Sgt. Delvona Maria, a practical-minded chemical specialist with the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, who, like many U.S. female soldiers, wears her hair pulled tightly back and pinned up. “How would you get a seal?”

And the Israeli women sported sandals on their feet, with nicely painted nails.

“The flip-flops?” Maria said, incredulous. “No. We’re around heavy equipment.”

The young women’s uniforms consisted of trim shirts tucked into hip-huggers — some of them tailored to fit just so.

“We’re not going there,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Ciocca, the commander of the battalion that recently spent three weeks in Israel on a missile defense exercise.

The Israeli women’s appearance reflected just one of the differences between the military forces of a long-standing alliance: the U.S., in which all troops are volunteers, and Israel, the only Western power and one of a handful of countries that conscripts women as well as men.

The Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, are a central part of a country formed as a home and refuge in disputed lands 61 years ago, after 6 million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust. At war continuously since then with the Palestinians they displaced, and viewed as having no right to exist by neighbors such as Iran, Israeli society has been built partly on the idea that projecting superior military strength is key to its survival.

Jewish Israelis are drafted at age 18, their unit assignments decided by a battery of tests and interviews they undergo in high school. Men must serve three years; women, usually two.

Although ultra-orthodox Jews seek deferments on religious grounds, and the number of all Israelis seeking deferments has grown in recent years, most serve willingly, part of what they see as a sort of sacred duty.

“It’s a must. Someone gives something,” said Maya Cohen, who served 10 years ago and now works at a Tel Aviv hostel. “I was very proud. I look very badly at people who don’t serve.”

“I really felt compelled, like it was my duty,” said Ariel Altmann, who served in a combat unit in the Lebanon war in 2006 and in operations in the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2007. “I didn’t perceive the military service as a job.”

Altmann, who trained with U.S. forces, said he viewed the U.S. military as highly “professional” compared to the IDF.

“Here, there’s a lot more emotion in it,” he said. “A lot more anger, maybe.”

Unlike college-educated U.S. officers, those entering the IDF become officers straight out of high school, based on their preconscription tests and completion of officer school. The school has a high attrition rate, and those who are dropped serve their time as enlisted soldiers.

But rank isn’t as important as it is in the U.S. armed forces. Soldiers and their commanders call each other by their first names, a big contrast to the way U.S. troops address their leaders.

“I’m a little more formal than some of my colleagues. I’ll say, ‘colonel,’ ” said Lt. Barak Raz, a former IDF combat engineer who was born in Queens, N.Y., and is currently assigned to public affairs duty. “And they’ll bust my chops for doing so.”

“You’re starting with a very small country with a lot of Jewish family values. Everybody has to do it, so everyone identifies with each other. Basically, if there’s one thing that can sum it up, in Hebrew it’s ‘Tsva-am’ — the people’s army.”

With the exception of the Druze community living in northern Israel, Arab Israelis are not subject to the draft, and few volunteer.

That reinforces social inequalities in a country where military service is highly rewarded.

“Citizens who do not perform military service enjoy less access to social and economic benefits,” a U.S. State Department report in February pointed out.

Feminists, too, long criticized the IDF as a sort of men’s club that offered power and privilege.

“For decades, it was widely accepted that some of Israel’s top military officers and government ministers considered sexual encounters with female employees a seigniorial right,” according to a 2006 New York Times report.

In 1998, Israel passed a sweeping sexual harassment law, inspired in part by American legislation, and the situation for female soldiers has improved.

But last year, 363 sexual harassment complaints were filed, mainly by female soldiers doing their compulsory service, according to the newspaper Haaretz, and an IDF survey showed that one in seven female soldiers reported sexual harassment. Yet 37 percent of female soldiers who had said they were sexually attacked or harassed did not pursue the complaint, the newspaper reported.

When she served about a decade ago, Cohen said, she worked as a secretary for a female officer and did not experience sexual harassment. Still, she said, women were “not at all equal.”

“They have nice names for the duty, but it’s just a name,” she said. “In a paratrooper unit, her job is actually folding the parachute. And she would be called a paratrooper.”

Altmann said he had a female friend who is serving as a combat pilot, perhaps the most prestigious assignment in the IDF and a field that opened up to women after a 1995 court case that resulted in the first female fighter pilot in 2001. “She’s a girl, and she’s doing the job just as well,” he said.

Women first began entering pilot training in the U.S. in 1974, and were allowed to become fighter pilots in 1993.

Israeli women now also serve as artillery crewmembers, gunnery instructors and officers in charge of men.

But just as in the U.S. military, most combat positions remain closed to women, which women’s advocates say harms their chances for advancement.

But unlike in the U.S. military, gay people are expected to serve, and do so openly.

“I know a few gay people in the army and people knew and their commanders knew and it was not a problem,” Altmann said. Still, he said, they did not serve, as far as he knew, in the infantry.

“The whole ambience — it’s very masculine,” he said. “In a combat unit, if he would say he’s gay, it wouldn’t be comfortable for anyone.”

Female troops with the Israeli Defense Forces have more relaxed uniform requirements than women in the U.S. forces. They may wear sandals and jewelry, carry purses and keep their hair in long, loose ponytails. At a dinner at the start of a joint U.S-Israeli missile defense exercise, U.S. Army Capt. Stephen Hummel poses with IDF Capt. Ofer Yizhar-Barnea, left, and 2nd Lt. Ayelet Yosef.

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