“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.”
—David Ben-Gurion, first Israeli Prime Minister
Female volunteer in the Hagana, precursor to the IDF (Zahal)
Women have served as IDF (Zahal) soldiers since the very beginning. On 26 May, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established the IDF (Zahal) as Israel’s armed forces. Less than three months later, the Knesset instituted mandatory conscription for all women without children.
Not everyone was happy about this development, however. Parts of the more religious community felt that allowing their daughters to enlist would lead to immodesty. They wanted nothing to do with Ben-Gurion’s vision.
In 2012, the State Archives made a unique document available to the public for the first time. On 15 February, 1952, Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Israel’s Karaite community. Over the course of three pages and a stream of Biblical quotations, he attempts to show that women serving in the army and defending the nation is sanctioned by tradition:
“All of these verses [from the Bible] 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.”
The State must teach women how to fight, Ben-Gurion says, as a matter of pure necessity:
“Since you rightly believe that the security of the State must be pursued night and day, I want you to know that that security will not exist if our nation’s women do not know how to fight. We are few – and our enemies are many. If, heaven forbid, a war falls upon us, the men will go to fight the enemy, and if, heaven forbid, the women who are protecting their children at home do not know how to use a weapon – what will be their end if the enemy falls upon them?”
There’s nothing ideal about war, Ben-Gurion says. But as long as the threat of war exists, women must play an equal role in keeping Israel safe:
“I hope that one day, as our prophets said, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4), and we will sit in quiet and in peace, and we will no longer need our sons and daughters to go to the army… But until that prophecy is realised, and the security of our nation and the safety of every man and woman in Israel is in danger, all of our sons and our daughters must know how to defend themselves, their nation and their land.”
Today, 57 percent of all officers in the IDF (Zahal) are women. Ben-Gurion’s vision came true.