Gender equality on the battlefield

The struggle of female combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

IDF combat soldier Ondria Rees. Credit: Courtesy.
IDF combat soldier Ondria Rees. Credit: Courtesy.
Ondria Rees
Ondria Rees converted to Judaism at age 15, made aliyah and just completed her IDF service as a combat soldier in the search and rescue unit. She now dedicates her time to defending Israel online.

Today, Israel’s female combat soldiers, including myself, are facing a war on multiple fronts. On the ground, we are faced with the same deadly threats as our male counterparts. These include everything from terrorists to violent teens hurling stones and improvised Molotov cocktails.

But when we return from the frontlines, we face additional attacks that our male counterparts do not.

Recently, three Israeli soldiers were murdered on the Egyptian border. This incident got a lot of attention for many valid reasons. Clearly, the murder of female combat soldier Lia Ben Nun and her two male comrades Ohad Dahan and Ori Yitzhak Iluz had nothing to do with their sex. Yet some people chose to exploit this incident to criticize the presence of female combat soldiers in the IDF.

(From left) Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19 and Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz (center) were shot dead by an Egyptian terrorist along the southern border on June 3, 2023. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.

This criticism came as no surprise. The IDF’s female combat soldiers have long been targets of slander and stereotypes. To many, these “young, beautiful and deadly” soldiers have become a modern version of the “Jewess”—a 19th century antisemitic trope that oversexualized Jewish women while simultaneously portraying them as a threat to traditional gender roles. This stereotype intersects with more traditional chauvinistic biases, subjecting the IDF’s female soldiers to criticism and prejudice from every direction.

This was clearly demonstrated by Rolling Stone’s absurd May 2021 article titled “Why Are Israeli Defense Forces Soldiers Posting Thirst Traps on TikTok?” which capitalized on that month’s Israel-Hamas conflict and a resulting surge in online antisemitism.

In the face of this, as a veteran IDF female combat soldier, I cannot remain silent any longer. I have decided to share my story in hopes of making people understand what being a female combat soldier really means.

I made aliyah and joined the IDF at the age of 23. Despite already having a bachelor’s degree, I knew I wanted to join the army in order to contribute to the country I love.

When I got to basic training, I asked other female soldiers why they voluntarily signed up to serve as combat soldiers. Their answers varied, but can be summed up as, “I want to better myself and protect my country.”

Whenever I was struggling mentally or physically during our seven months of training, it was my female comrades who encouraged me to keep going and helped me achieve my goals. I would do the same for them.

During training, we were completely integrated with the male soldiers in our unit, except for sleeping arrangements. We sparred with the guys during Krav Maga lessons. We trained in carrying the guys on stretchers and giving them medical treatment. We worked out, went on marches, did target practice, trained for arrests or search and rescue training—and we did it together. Eventually, when we finished training and were deployed to the field, we served together in guard duty, missions and arrests.

Although there are physiological differences between females and males, female combat soldiers haven’t put a strain on the IDF’s ability to protect Israel and perform effectively. On the contrary, the IDF uses certain natural advantages women have, such as communication skills, intelligence gathering and critical decision-making, to the IDF’s advantage.

The IDF needs all the combat soldiers it can get, male or female. So long as you can run three kilometers and shoot a gun, you should be in. In the field, you’re not going to be running marathons chasing suspects or fighting 20 people with your bare hands. Despite physical differences, IDF female combat soldiers have gained a reputation around the world as capable, tough and no-nonsense warriors.

Some people assume that female combat soldiers get an easy ride. Nothing could be further from the truth. As part of the IDF’s elite search and rescue unit, I have entered Ramallah, Bethlehem and other Arab towns in Judea and Samaria. I have engaged in combat and arrests in the field. I was a sharpshooter in my platoon, meaning that whenever there were violent clashes, I would be called up to shoot rubber bullets at terrorists throwing Molotov cocktails and boulders at our soldiers.

Male soldiers in mixed-gender combat units know that we are their equals and have our backs like we have theirs.

Mine is just one story, and I am no hero. Thousands of women like me serve in the IDF. Some, like Lia Ben Nun, die on the front lines defending the State of Israel.

Today, women in the IDF serve in almost every role, from Alice Miller—who sued for the right to enter the Israeli Air Force Flight Academy—to Israel’s female fighter pilots and Reut Rettig-Weiss, the first female brigade commander in the artillery brigades. As of Feb. 2022, women make up 18% of Israel’s active combat force, upwards of 25,000 women who serve alongside, ahead of and above men. Last year, 3,000 women were recruited into active combat roles and this trend is only increasing. Opportunities for women in the IDF are constantly expanding, as is Israeli women’s desire to be part of the khaki wall protecting the Jewish people.

The IDF’s female combat soldiers are a testament to the strength and capability of women. They shatter stereotypes, proving that gender does not determine one’s worth on the battlefield. Through rigorous training, physical and mental resilience and a shared commitment to safeguarding their nation, these women have earned their place alongside their male counterparts.

As the IDF continues to promote diversity and inclusion, the contributions of female combat soldiers will undoubtedly continue to shape Israel’s defense landscape for years to come. I’m very proud to have worked for and earned the title of combat soldier. I’m very proud to see the younger generations of Israeli girls and women who yearn to fight for the State of Israel.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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