Retired Israeli general combats stereotypes

Retired Israeli general combats stereotypes

By Akiva Eldar, Al-Monitor

16.03.15
 
Retired Brig. Gen. Israela Oron has spent almost 30 years in the army. During her military career and later in civilian life, she held a long list of key posts. In many, she was the first woman in the job, the one who broke the Israeli glass ceiling of uniquely male preserves.
 
That was the case in 1991, during the Gulf War, when she headed the operations department of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman unit and was the first woman to be appointed deputy spokesperson. The same was true when she began teaching at the National Defense College and again when she was named deputy director of the National Security Council.
 
Oron, a native of the former Soviet Union, moved to Israel as a young child. To many, she represents the Israeli immigrants' success story — a woman who made it to the top echelon of the mainly Sabra-born military, serving as IDF Women’s Corp commander.
 
She has been closely associated with Zionist Camp Co-Chair Tzipi Livni since she was her commander in the army, and she currently heads the campaign headquarters of the top woman in the Zionist Camp.
 
Oron is an active member of the Geneva Initiative and of the Council for Peace and Security. The combination of her defense experience and the expertise she has gained in the diplomatic arena made her a natural for the steering committee of Forum Deborah. This nongovernmental organization includes more than a hundred female experts on foreign policy and national security. Oron is also a member of the Institute for Inclusive Security.
 
Al-Monitor:  What was it that inspired you to pursue an army career?
 
Oron:  The truth is that my dream, as a child, was to become a medical doctor. However, as it turned out, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while I was serving in the army, I learned one night, in my line of duty, that there was a very real danger to the survival of the State of Israel. As I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, and had myself been born abroad and immigrated to Israel with my parents as a little girl, I vowed then and there that if we won the war, I would stay in the army. After all, while becoming a doctor is certainly a noble aspiration, defending the state is of utmost importance. Well, we won the war. And I remained true to my vow.
 
Al-Monitor:  And during this period in the army, who was your female role model?
 
Oron:  My female role model was a commander by the name of Nava Peles, under whom I was serving. She was a native kibbutz member, an ego-free idealist, a person of values, full of love for the country and the people. She taught us that any task we were given should be performed, making it clear that she would not take no for an answer, no matter what the excuse might be.
 
Al-Monitor:  What would you qualify as your major achievement while in the army in the field of women’s status?
 
Oron:  It was without doubt eliminating the separate IDF Women’s Corps. This is what opened up the way for women to assume roles in all military units and in virtually all positions in the IDF.
 
Al-Monitor:  What changes would you like to see in the role women play in the Israeli army and society?
 
Oron:  Well, the good news is that over the years, we have succeeded in opening up for women most service opportunities in the IDF. There are almost no army jobs today that are set apart by gender. And this is aptly illustrated by the fact that the recruiting, screening and placement processes are jointly taking place, for men and women alike. The less welcome news is the religious trend that has taken over the IDF, which threatens to ban women from certain army units.
 
Al-Monitor:  When you retired from the army, you embarked on an impressive public path. As one of the leaders of Forum Deborah, tell us what you do and what you’ve achieved.
 
Oron:  We established the forum because we thought women were not very visible in areas of strategy, defense and policy. Other than Tzipi Livni, only men talk about these issues. When it comes to national strategic decisions, women aren’t taken into account. Although there’s a mandatory law [on the inclusion of women in war and peace decision-making], based on a UN resolution, it is not enforced unless someone files a petition in court. For example, in almost the only country in the world that has a compulsory draft for women, no one thought a woman should be appointed to the committee on drafting ultra-Orthodox men. That changed only after we raised the issue. It didn’t occur to anyone to appoint women to the Sheshinski state committee that dealt with the issue of Israel’s natural gas deposits, as though the gas royalties were meant only for men. We lobby to promote initiatives for the inclusion of women in various fields.
 
Al-Monitor:  The right wing has been successful in placing defense issues at the top of the election agenda. Defense is portrayed in Israel as a matter for men with deep voices, soldiers who know how to handle the thugs trying to take over the neighborhood.
 
Oron:  No connection has been proven between the pitch of one’s voice and success in combating terrorism. On the contrary. Take, for example, a world-class leader like [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, an exceptional woman leader.
 
After the Deborah Forum sent Israeli media outlet editors a list of women experts on defense issues, we saw during Operation Protective Edge [July-August 2014] more women being interviewed on television. It turns out that what women have to say is no less important than what men do even though they speak in deep voices.
 
The public debate on security is conducted through the narrow prism of warfare doctrines from the 1970s and 1980s. The message of the woman living along the Gaza border can be more interesting than the commentary by a reserve officer living in central Israel.
 
When this kind of warfare is involved, the integration of women can be and should be far more intensive, but it appears the problem lies in the conception. Once in an interview on Israeli TV Channel One, the anchor asked me what we, as women, add to the discourse. I answered him with a question: “What is it that you as a man add to the discourse?” I have to prove something, he doesn’t, not to mention the fact that in the long run, security can only be achieved through diplomatic arrangements and this is something we try to emphasize. After all, the security issue has to be resolved through an arrangement and understanding between the sides.
 
Al-Monitor:  As head of the campaign headquarters of a woman candidate [Livni] for the job of prime minister in rotation, how will the results of the coming elections influence the trend of women’s integration?
 
Oron:  Since I know the Zionist Camp will form the next government, we are in excellent shape. In the first 30 places on our Knesset candidates’ list, we have 10 women — more than any other party. Among the first 10 candidates, we have four women, each of whom could be prime minister – either now or soon. Each of them is of the highest caliber. They can hold any job — yes, including the post of defense minister.
 
Al-Monitor:  Do you see it as a special obligation [and a privilege] to speak up for women?
 
Oron:  ‚ÄčI certainly do. I myself had to struggle to win quite a number of my army positions — jobs that women had never before been entrusted with. And quite often, I was the first woman assigned to that position. And I have shown that we, women, can fulfill any role. In most of the military staff discussions I attended, I was the only woman present. In fact, at first, I was seen as a token woman. And it was not an easy feeling, especially when the ideas I came up with went unnoticed, only to be adopted as brilliant suggestions five minutes later when one of the male participants echoed the very same idea. Anyway, eventually they have realized that gender is not a factor that necessarily guarantees a significant contribution to the debate. And once this was acknowledged, the path was opened to fruitful cooperation.