Saturday, November 10, 2012

Women in combat and victorious armies: Feminism at Tel Aviv University

In 1999 I was studying for an MA in Political Science at Tel Aviv University and was required to attend a lecture by Professor Azar Gat, head of the Diplomacy and Security program. The lecture was on the advisability of allowing women to take combat roles in the Israeli Army. The Israeli army requires women to serve two years military service and women were not allowed to perform combat roles.
The US army had changed its position some years earlier and there was a beginning of a debate in Israel.
The lecture hall at the University was bursting and most of the senior lecturers were there, including the one or two women on the staff. Gat's program is a way of drawing in senior officers to the University because they get points and pay rises for getting further degrees. Presumably the army also pays for their studies along the way. There were a few uniformed women soldiers in the audience.
Gat's lecture was dull.  I remember feeling astonished that he could make so much fuss about giving a lecture when he really had nothing to say.  He made a single point and it wasn't very interesting: If an Israeli woman gets taken prisoner it will be a major burden ad the army will have to pay a high price to release her.
Its kind of a loser's argument: Lets assume it all fails and then discuss the consequence of that.
I remember seeing Dr. Erika Weinthal, who had taught me, walk out in disgust.
In the course of the  lecture, Gat gave examples of armies which had allowed women to take up combat roles: The Israeli army in 1948, the Red Army in the Second World War and Russian Civil War, the US army in Iraq, the Vietcong, the Eritrean liberation front, Mao's Army. What struck me about his examples was that they were all victorious armies.  So during the post-lecture questions I raised my hand and at some point he got to me and I asked him how he explained that all his examples of armies permitting women in combat were victorious armies.
I still remember the moment.  Gat was stunned.  There was a silence in the room and I noticed a couple of the women in uniform turning, approvingly, to get a good look at me.  He stammered something about higher levels of mobilization and then said, something along the lines of "You know what, why don't you come and study with me and we'll figure it out".
Then I made a typical mistake.  I stood on my principles.  "No", I told him.  "That's your job!", "You explain it to me."
With hindsight I probably threw away my best shot at a career in academia.
The way I remember it, from that point on the lecture was basically over.  Gat had very little to say and my question had simply blown his lecture away. Within a year of that lecture, the Israeli army decided to open combat positions to women. I am quite sure (though I have no proof) that my question at that lecture was a key factor in the decision.  When it comes to military decision making, nothing trumps victory.

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