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Religious Women Fighters in Israel's War of Independence:
A New Gender Perception, or a Passing Episode?
We, the religious pioneer movement, have brought about a revolution in the status of women in traditional religious society, without compromising traditional Jewish morality within our society—and of that we are proud. We are proud of our women members, who carried out their duties under all circumstances—in the community, at work, and in war—as borne out by the women of the Etzion Bloc who were taken prisoner. But we are well aware of how great is the distance between the army and civil society. 1
These words were spoken in 1949 by Knesset Member Moshe Una, representing the Hapo'el Hamizrahi religious Zionist party, during the Knesset debate on the law that would require compulsory military service for women.
The question of the place of women in the Israel Defense Forces, officially established on May 31, 1948, arose during the term of the first Knesset. The Women's Corps had been formed in April 1948, and after the state's founding the Knesset decided that women without children aged 18-25, whether or not they were married, would be required to serve. 2 However, pressure from the religious parties led to the exemption of religious women from mandatory military service. 3
The religious bloc's opposition to the integration of religious women into the IDF raises some questions. Religious circles had encouraged the participation of women in the defense forces before the establishment of the state, and religious women had been integrated into the forces that fought in the War of Independence. What was the reason for this turnabout in the stance [End Page 119] taken by the religious Zionists, who, having supported the military training of religious girls and their participation in the War of Independence, then decided that they should be exempted from military service?
This article has two goals: (1) to tell the story of the participation of religious women in the War of Independence; and (2) to analyze the ambiguity in the religious Zionist movement's position concerning the participation of religious women in military activity and so to disclose a further dimension of that movement's ideology.
The story of the religious women fighters has largely been forgotten and has gone unstudied. This paper is based on archival material and primary sources that had not previously been the object of scholarly attention—including newspapers, memoirs, and oral testimonies—and on personal interviews. I subjected this information to a historical and comparative analysis, in relation to previous studies of women in the military.
There are some problems connected with the documentation that serves as the basis for this study. Much information is lacking, and some of what does exist is imprecise. The scantiness of the data made it difficult to draw generalized conclusions. Nonetheless, the combination of contemporary and retrospective documentation, together with the impression conveyed by the spirit of the sources, has made it possible to sketch the general lines of the women's story. The issue of quantification was particularly difficult. My attempts to estimate the scope of the phenomena described herein met with considerable difficulty, in most cases because of the dearth of statistical data. In most cases, I have been able only to suggest estimates.
The oral documentation was also not without problems. Things tend to be forgotten with the passing of years, and there is a tendency to look back with nostalgia. At the same time, the use of interviews was vital to flesh out issues described in other sources and to shed light on matters that lack documentation. By presenting the story of the religious women soldiers and comparing it to that of other women soldiers, I hope to add a chapter to the history of the period leading up to the foundation of the State of Israel...