Passing the Torch

My thoughts of late – perhaps provoked rather than inspired – have been about women. Specifically, women in the military. If the original provocation was the escalating war of words, waged in print and across the airwaves, over a scandalous assertion tweeted by the current GOP standard-bearer some three years ago, the leap to the Torah portion, Shoftim, and, from there, to the Book of Judges was short. At least, for me.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, instituted mandatory conscription of women into the Israel Defense Forces in the fall of 1948. He believed, moreover, that training women to fight was intrinsic to the security of the state and doubled down on this conviction in a 1952 missive to the Karaite community. Citing numerous biblical verses, Ben-Gurion singled out Deborah the Prophetess to “prove that the Hebrew woman was not shut away in her house, but rather played an important part in the life of the nation, serving as a judge for her people and leading her nation out to war.”

I don’t know how much thought, if any, Israel’s first government gave to questions of sexual harassment and assault in the IDF. In truth, I am loath to entertain the possibility that such considerations were necessary then. To my mind, the women, whose torch I carried and passed along – spirited women, who literally risked life and limb in the struggle for statehood – were the lifeblood of the now defunct Women’s Corps (חיל נשים), also known by its acronym khen (ח”ן), the Hebrew word for “grace”.

My duties as a noncommissioned officer (NCO) were defined – and redefined – by Operation Peace for Galilee, the 1982 Lebanon War. Ten months into my service, and five months into the war, I was transferred to a training base in the Negev. From one hour to the next, I could be disciplinarian, den mother, social worker and friend to the 187 young women in my charge. I’d previously encountered and dodged my share of philanderers, but nothing could have prepared me for the scores of servicemen, officers, and the monthly rotations of reservists, who had left their wives and scruples at home. As most women know from their own experience, sexual misconduct is an ubiquitous scourge that afflicts the military, the workplace and even our homes. So, the challenges of my role did not begin and end with these men.

Twenty-seven years before Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, was formally indicted for rape and sundry sexual offenses, we lacked the vocabulary for transgressions that didn’t rise to the level of assault, let alone the channels through which to address them. I tried. But, when the name, rank and position of the offending officer became known, I was threatened with disciplinary action for attempting to lodge a complaint against him. If my commanding officer’s intention was to intimidate me, she succeeded. To an extent. I couldn’t offer my girls any recourse against unwanted advances, but I could assure them none would be taken against them for saying “no.”

Thirty years later, a 2013 report found that one in eight women in the IDF had been subjected to some form of sexual assault. To be sure, such figures cannot be downplayed; they are troubling, to say the least. And yet, when I look at what appears to be an escalation in the number of offences, what I find is a corresponding increase in awareness and the number of soldiers, both male and female, reporting incidents of harassment. The progress is slow, but I have faith – faith in a generation that continues to bring sexual misconduct out of the shadows and into the courts.

Is segregation the answer? Even in 1948, David Ben-Gurion knew it was not. His vision continues to be our legacy – and our strength.

The army is the supreme symbol of duty, and, as long as women are not equal to men in performing this duty, they have not yet obtained true equality. If the daughters of Israel are absent from the army, then the character of the Yishuv will be distorted.

So, when you next recite the weekly Mi Sheberach prayer for members of the IDF (whose last verse you might have recognized in the Torah portion, Deut. 20:4), consider this. Today, 92% of positions in the IDF are available to women, who make up 33% of the force and 57% of all officers… “on the land, in the air, and on the sea.”

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