Former IDF Chief: Women Will 'Surprise' the U.S. Military

Thirty-year veteran of Israeli co-ed military warns U.S. against common mistakes.

An Israeli soldier and her comrades are seen during the final stages of a march near Ein Yahav in southern Israel, Dec. 20, 2006. The past ten years have seen an important shift in the way the Israeli army views its female conscripts, allowing them out of the clerical or support jobs to which they were traditionally confined and making room for them on the battlefield.
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A retired general of the Israel Defense Forces cautions the U.S. military from acting too quickly to incorporate women into combat roles.

Gen. Yitzkah Gershon is a 32-year veteran of commanding troops in the IDF, which have counted women among its frontline troops for decades. Gershon has marveled at female soldier's ability to perform in combat situations, but warns against sudden changes to long-standing military institutions.

"We have misconceptions. We have been brainwashed about what women can do and what women cannot do. This is a big, big mistake," says Gershon, now national director and CEO of the non-profit Friends of the IDF.

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It remains a common myth that women have always been fully integrated into the Israeli military. They took part in roughly 20 percent of combat organizations before Israel's official founding in 1948. Women in Israel have long been subjected to a similar conscription as men –only 21 months for enlisted women, versus 36 months for men – but were previously limited to administrative and technical jobs. A 1978 report from the Air University Review says this was to allow them time for marriage and motherhood, and thus relegated them to second-class citizenship.

Shortly after this report, women began filling into combat roles through the Chen, the Israeli Women's Corps, as the demand for soldiers increased in the 1980s and 1990s during conflicts with Lebanon and Palestine.

Women now serve alongside men in special "Karakal" units that combine the sexes, largely used to guard the Israeli border with Egypt. These units made headlines at the end of last year when a female soldier successfully engaged and killed a militant who had crossed over the border wearing an explosive vest and charged at her unit, reports Israel's YNet News. The corporal, whose identity was withheld, received a special commendation for bravery.

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Now Israeli soldiers count women among the highest ranks, after Oma Barbivai became the first woman to be promoted to major general.

Gershon states an ideological change in the ranks should not accompany a drastic shift in training.

"It's not just to adjust the system," Gershon says. "Leave the same standards, and [women] can surprise you."

Israeli military history proves it is not fair to immediately thrust women into special operations forces or to the front lines, he adds. Instead, Gershon suggests the U.S. military should start the incorporation of women through instructor positions, such as at sniper or reconnaissance schools. They will gain experience, and the military will grow used to having women in senior roles.

"It brings them to be equal, to ask for more, to stand for their rights," he says. "We, as democracies, are having equal rights and women as a part of the society can do almost anything, yet their salaries ¬ are lower. This is discrimination."

"It is very important for [women in the military], because when they get into the society, they know they can lead," Gershon adds.

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