In fact, the Israeli experience, contrary to the assertions of my correspondents, constitutes the closest thing we have to a laboratory experiment for testing the claims of those who would expand the role of women as the Army is trying to do.
Contrary to common contention, Israel does not currently allow women in combat–they’ve been banned since 1948. But they have a history of integrated fighting there that we can learn from.
During the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, Palestinian Jews formed an elite, semi-clandestine, volunteer youth organization called Palmach. During Israel’s War of Independence, Palmach served as the core of Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Force (IDF).
The ideology of Palmach was egalitarian socialism, and according to the Israeli military historian Marin Van Creveld, the organization “was sexually integrated to an extent rarely attained by any armed force before or since.” Van Creveld writes that before Israeli independence, Palmach women accompanied men on missions, especially “undercover missions that involved obtaining intelligence, transmitting messages, smuggling arms, and the like.”
Despite Palmach’s ideological commitment to radical equality for women, the practical experience of the 1948 war–which involved coordinated, combined arms-offensive actions–convinced the leaders of Israel and the IDF that the dangers of women in combat outweighed the benefits–including commitment to an abstract concept of equality between the sexes. For one thing, according to the late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, women reduced the combat effectiveness of Haganah units because men took steps to protect them out of “fear of what the Arabs would do to [the] women if they captured them.”
The Israeli case demonstrates that, at least in the past, when confronted by great danger, reasonable people can sacrifice ideology to the dictates of nature. In other words, nature trumps attempts at human engineering.