When retired Col. Miri Eisin graduated from high school in Israel in 1980, she was drafted like every 18-year-old boy and girl in the Jewish State to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It was both a totally ordinary and extraordinary event: At home in Israel, military service is as much a part of quotidian life as taxes and public transport. But zooming out of that postage-stamp-sized nation and taking in the state of the world as a whole, Israel’s military — which is among only a handful on earth to require conscription of its female citizens — is radically unique.
Eisin, who was born in Northern California but raised in Israel, speaks fluent English and also impressive French. It was mostly for her language skills, she says, that she was placed into military intelligence, a role that jived well with her personality. Eisin is quick-thinking, intelligent and has fierce work ethics, which might have been why — while still in her compulsory training — she pushed very hard to get accepted into an officers’ training course. Eisin would go on to spend 20 years in the military, far beyond the mandatory two years that are required of Israeli women (men must serve for three years). She rose all the way up to the rank of colonel — a position whose stripes are so elusive that only 2% of the officers wearing them in Israel have ever been women.
At the time, she was extraordinary. While equality for women in the IDF looks much different today than it did when Eisin first joined up as a teenager, the reality, she says, is that equality has never been the goal.
“Everything that has to do with women in the [Israeli] military has evolved, developed and changed in the last 25 years,” she says. “Most women used to go to clerical positions, but I was lucky, and I pushed very hard to go to an officers’ course.”
Today, the Israeli military looks quite different. Fifty-one percent of all officers in the military are women, among them the first-ever female Israel air force squadron commander — known only by her first initial, Maj. G — who was tapped for her boundary-breaking position early last month. In 2017, the country launched its first program to train female tank commanders. A few months earlier, it announced with great pride that the numbers of women serving in combat positions were up by 38%. Progress, it seems, has been steady and swift. It was only in 2001 that a woman — Roni Zuckerman — reached the pilot’s seat itself in the Israel air force, meaning it took less than two decades to leapfrog from that achievement to the position of squadron commander.
But forward momentum, much like war itself, is always more complicated on the ground. Eisin, today a mother of three who is retired from the army and serves as a geopolitical expert, looks at her experience as a woman fighter with the cut-and-dry steadiness one might expect from a career soldier.
“It isn’t about equality 50/50, it’s about equal opportunity,” she says. “In general I feel that the military has given back to me as much as I have given it,” she says bluntly. “I [served in] a lot of diverse and amazing positions, and I think that’s a dimension of the modern world and what the last 100 years have given women.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Gila Klifa-Amir, who during her distinguished service served as the IDF chief of staff's adviser on women's affairs, says she is immensely proud of the gains made toward embracing women as soldiers within Israeli society.
“It must be understood that gender equality is an evolutionary process within a developing society,” she says. “The IDF has gone a significant distance and has adjusted and changed a great deal over the years in this arena.
But a key point often left out of the conversation about women fighters and Israeli society, she says, is actually the most important: Women have not excelled within the ranks of the IDF because of the firm lobbying hand of the women’s rights movement. On the contrary, Klifa-Amir says. They have excelled because their advancement has gone hand-in-hand with the primary aim of the IDF itself, which is protecting the State of Israel above all.
“Equal opportunity for women in the IDF is not a discussion of balancing state security and women’s rights. Rather, preserving the rights of women in the IDF in itself promotes the basic interests of both the IDF and Israel as a whole,” she says.
Today, when young women arrive for their first day of mandatory service on military bases across Israel, there are more positions open to them than were open to Eisin on her first day those decades ago. But much of the reasoning for the opening of those positions has simply been a matter of good sense: Those young women, it has been determined, are as capable as the young men alongside them to fill those ranks, so the doors have been unlocked.
Eisin, who retired from military service after the birth of her third child, says with a hint of irony in her voice that working mothers in every field will always shoulder a burden that their male colleagues do not.
“I wasn’t forced out,” she says, “but life is always about timing.” She wanted to take a year-long maternity leave after the birth of her third child, an option many women in Israel choose to take — their right to a full year away from work is protected by the law — and her superiors offered her an early retirement and collection of her pension instead.
“This aspect of how you balance your professional life and your married life and your life with children — that balance doesn't have to do with the military, really,” she says. “It has to do with every working mother I can think of.”