Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Amir Ebstein has learned a lot from his work integrating women into combat forces.
Women take longer to learn to carry and walk, for example, and their usually smaller size means they don’t carry as much weight.
But women tend to be more patient, have better concentration and better marksmanship. For that reason, a company of women may be a more ideal choice for a job that requires those skills, like spending a few days at an outpost watching something.
“We’ve learned to train them better,” Ebstein said. “We’ve learned to match the challenges to the abilities of the different units. We have some mixed units, especially in the infantry where we like to have it mixed. So we’ll have around 50, 60% of the unit will be women, but we’ll have that 40% or 50% men because you want a company or platoon going out to do a mission to have the ability to both to carry heavy weights and to do other things.”
Ebstein was in Philadelphia on Dec. 4 as part of a tour with Our Soldiers Speak, an organization that brings IDF and Israeli National Police senior officers to talk to graduate schools, the press and policymakers about the Israeli perspective on global issues.
For this tour, Ebstein made stops at Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. He talked with The Wall Street Journal and the Department of State’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and briefed a bipartisan group of policymakers in Washington, D.C.
He spoke about his experience as the head of the border defense array — an effort to defend Israel’s borders in a more professionalized manner — as well as his experience overseeing the integration of women into combat forces.
Until about 15 years ago, regular units conducted border defense, Ebstein explained. But threats on the border have grown and become more sophisticated with the use of tunnels and drones. Having the regular units come in and do a short tour was not enough to combat these new threats. Units specialized in border defense can provide more expertise and give other units the opportunity to train more.
The IDF started incorporating more women into these units, and for a simple reason.
“We need more personnel,” Ebstein said. “We need more combat personnel.”
Jewish women are required to serve two years in the IDF, so to serve in a combat role, they actually have to volunteer to extend their service.
There are now thousands of women in combat roles, Ebstein said. Many serve in border defense or in collection units that do intel.
“Once we started with putting women in combat units, we saw that it really works well,” Ebstein said. “They’re doing an excellent job, so we’ve increased the amount. So in the last three or four years, we’ve gone up from one battalion to four and five, so it’s a lot of women out there. We’re probably the first — I wouldn’t say the first army to have women in combat positions — but we’re definitely the one who brings them en masse.”
When American Jews picture women in the Israeli military, black-and-white photos of women with rifles serving in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later became part of the IDF, may come to mind. But following the War of Independence, women didn’t generally serve in combat roles.
The inclusion now of women in combat roles is sometimes seen as a political issue in Israel, Ebstein said, but the IDF doesn’t look at it that way.
“First of all, we’d like to be the most combat-effective that we can,” he said. “So by opening up more and more and more units, we allow other units to train. We become more specialized in what we’re doing in border defense. In terms of combat effectiveness, it’s really good. The second reason that we’re doing this is we are the people’s army.”
Being the people’s army means including more women in the roles they want to serve in, Ebstein said. It also means making space for the ultra-Orthodox to serve. Ebstein has people from a range of backgrounds, including Druze, Bedouin and Muslim soldiers, under his command, he said.
“Life in combat units is very hard,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s tough, you work hard, you don’t sleep a lot, and the physical work that you do is quite challenging, but you still get very, very high numbers (of women volunteering), and that allows the IDF to open up more and more and more units.”
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