Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Orna Barbivai

Women have served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) since before the state of Israel was created in 1948. Many women fought alongside men in pre-1948 militant organizations like the Haganah and Irgun, unofficial armies to protect the Jews of Israel and fight for independence. In the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, numerous women took up arms and protected their homeland, many of them Holocaust survivors. One such example is Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famed sex therapist, who went to Israel after she learned of her parents’ deaths in the concentration camps. Despite the fact that she was 4”7 and 17 years old, she joined the Haganah and became a scout and sniper. In the 1948 war, she got wounded to the point that she could not walk for several months. She is one of thousands of brave women and men who have served the Israeli army and made Israel a safer country for Jews.

After 1948, women were barred from actual combat due to the fear that they would be sexually assaulted if they became prisoners of war. In the 1950s and 60s, some women did rise the ranks, like Yael Rom, the first female pilot, and Hava Inbar, the first female military judge in the entire world. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, women began consistently reaching higher positions in the military. Since 2000, women have been guaranteed the opportunity to serve in the same roles as men in the military with the passage of the Equality Amendment to the Military Service Law.

On May 26, 2011, Orna Barbivai was appointed as the first woman major general, the second-highest rank in the IDF, by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. She is currently a brigadier general (the third-highest rank), following in the footsteps of Amira Dotan, the first woman to serve in that position. Barbivai has worked hard to get to this point; after serving her mandatory time in 1981, she went on to become a member of the IDF Personnel Directorate (aka the Manpower Directorate and Human Resources Directorate), the military body that controls human resources. She has also been head of human resources in the Ground Forces Personnel Division and adjutant general (a military chief administrative officer).

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has celebrated Barbivai’s appointment, stating that there is “extreme importance to integrating women in top positions in the IDF.” Netanyahu has made his support for women’s rights clear in the past. On International Women’s Day, he told female soldiers that “[Israel]…is especially prominent in that it is a democratic state in which women have equal rights.” When former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of several sexual assault accusations, Netanyahu stated that “[Katsav’s situation shows that] all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”

Other women have rejoiced in Barbivai’s promotion. Miri Regev, a Knesset member who served as brigadier general and IDF Spokesperson, stated that “I have no doubt that this nomination will open the door to many women officers who wish to climb higher in the chain of command. I hope this nomination won't turn out to be a one-time thing.” Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Opposition Leader in the Knesset, said that “There is no rank that is too heavy for a woman’s shoulders.”

Jewish women in the military, whether Israeli or abroad, are living out the legacy that our foremothers left us. In Judges, Deborah fought against the Canaanites, and Jael killed the Canaanites’ fleeing general Sisera. The story of Judith beheading Holofernes has also been handed down from mother to daughter. I think all Jewish feminists look forward to seeing even more women reach the highest ranks in the military that protects our homeland.

I dub Orna Barbivai into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud. 

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