Friday, July 30, 2010


“I know I am part of the Jewish state’s army and therefore when we speak about that, I listen and learn. I got used to it and I respect it''.

Cpl. Elinor Joseph, the first female Arab combat soldier in the IDF:“This will always be my home”

by Rotem Caro Weizman

“Look at the beret,” says Elinor, smiling from ear to ear, showing off the bright green beret that she earned after completing the trek which is part of her combat training in the Karakal Battalion. Her excitement is accompanied by a new historical precedent, since Elinor is the first Arab female combat soldier in IDF history.

Cpl. Elinor Joseph was born and raised in an integrated neighborhood of Jews and Arabs in Haifa, but attended a school in which all her classmates were Arab. She later moved to Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood where she currently lives. Despite the fact that she would always wear her father’s IDF dog-tag around her neck from when he served in the Paratrooper’s Unit, she never thought she would enlist. “I wanted to go abroad to study medicine and never come back,” she said. To her father it was clear that she would enlist in the IDF, as most citizens in Israel do. This was something that worried her very much. “I was scared to lose my friends because they objected to it. They told me they wouldn’t speak to me. I was left alone.”

Despite their opposition, she decided to move forward and enlist. She explained her motive: “I decided to go head-to-head, to check who my true friends are, to do something in life that I have never done before. I understood that it was most important to defend my friends, family, and country. I was born here.” At the end of the day, she says she realized it was the right thing to do, “With time, when you do things from the heart, you begin to understand their importance.”

“I might as well go the whole way”

Unlike most teenagers in Israel, Elinor did not undergo any kind of special preparations for her recruitment. Other than listening to some of her father’s combat stories and speaking to an IDF officer who helps minorities with enlistment, she didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She came to the Reception and Placement Base, known in IDF slang as the Bakum, and requested to be a combat medic because she decided, “If I enlist, I might as well go the whole way. I thought my father would absolve me from it, but it didn’t happen.” Despite her will to be in combat service, the response to Elinor was otherwise. “The placement officer laughed in my face and said I was too delicate. I started to cry,” she remembers.

After fighting to receive a high enough medical categorization in order to be placed in a combat position, and following many attempts to persuade the placement officer, Elinor was informed she would be a combat soldier. She remembers that upon arrival to the Reception and Placement Base, “It was the first time I saw my father cry. But then they told me I wouldn’t be a combat soldier, so I cried again.” She says she came to Basic Training not understanding what was going on around her, “I had no preparation so I really didn’t understand what it meant to stand at attention, or to salute my commander or even stand in formation.”

Despite initial shock and disappointment that she wouldn’t be in a combat unit, she decided to take a positive perspective and be the best soldier that she could be. “I didn’t want to disappoint those that supported me. I decided that if I am volunteering, I would need to prove myself and be an exemplary soldier, and I succeeded. In the end, I ended up enjoying it."

The fact that Elinor is a Christian Arab did not escape the attention of the girls around her. Her accent was the first thing that gave her away. “In the beginning everyone thought I was Argentinean. When they found out the truth, they were surprised,” she says.

“I treated all the people in the same manner, because we are all human”

After her basic training, Elinor went to a training base for a medic’s training course, where she was selected as the outstanding soldier of the course and received her commander’s personal pin. After the course, she was assigned to be a medic within the military police at the Qalqilya crossing. “I enjoyed it there. I liked the people and thanks to my blue beret (that of military police) nobody wanted to sit next to me in the bus so I always had a large place to sleep”, she laughs.

The difficult dilemma she felt in serving at a border crossing was not easy for her but she said during moments of difficulty and misgiving she would remember, “there was a Katyusha [rocket] that fell near my house and also hurt Arabs. If someone would tell me that serving in the IDF means killing Arabs, I remind them that Arabs also kill Arabs.”

“I treated all the people at the checkpoints in the same manner, because we are all human. For this reason, no one reacted to me in a negative manner, and to tell the truth, that surprised me.” Elinor’s presence also helped change people’s perceptions, “People knew I was there and that I wouldn’t hold my tongue if need be, so they had a constant reminder to treat the Palestinians well. But really, their treatment was always full of respect.”

Despite enjoying her service, the amount of responsibility given to her did not satisfy her, and she wanted to contribute more. After many discussions with a colonel in the Northern Command and with a senior officer in the Human Resources Branch who warned her that a military promotion would not be transferable to a combat role, Elinor was not convinced and tried out to be selected to serve in the Karakal Battalion. “When I said to my commander that I was accepted, he just turned around and walked away because he had wanted me to stay.”

Identity issues

Elinor returned to the Intake and Sorting Base, but this time she received the red combat boots that she had been dreaming of. The beginning wasn’t easy for her. “In the beginning I missed being in the military police. The relations with people there were very different because I knew them not only in a personal but also in a medical way, and this creates a very intimate connection with people, this is a different relationship. But then I realized I was now in a new place. I got to know people little by little and now I really love them all”.

Within the frameworks of her military service in general and of her combat training in particular, emphasis was always laid on the Jewish identity of the country in many ethical activities and in the general message that was passed on to the soldiers. This did not deter her. “I know I am part of the Jewish state’s army and therefore when we speak about that I listen and learn. I got used to it and I respect it, although I do not delve too much into the country’s identity – I have my own identity and I will respect that of the country”.

Right now, after finishing her training, she says wholeheartedly that she does not regret any of her choices. “I sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had studied abroad as planned, but I understand that I was not as experienced and responsible then as I am now. It is a satisfaction to complete challenging things.

I feel that in the army I matured a lot and became more responsible than I used to be”. She also feels satisfied from the respect she gained from the others. “Although everybody is surprised in the beginning I have always been respected, not just me but also my customs and my religion. Nobody ever disturbed me. I feel a lot of serenity and support and somebody even opened a group about me on Facebook. My parents also are very proud of me, maybe a little bit too much.”

“I believe in what I am doing”

Elinor did not only create a change within the army but also among her friends. “I was surprised to find out that even the ones who refused to talk to me accepted my choice in the end. I know that some parents of young men are not so enthusiastic if they go out with me because of my military service, probably because of the fact that I am a combat soldier.

There were also people who read things about me and reacted in a very hurtful manner, but I have learnt not to pay attention to it. I believe in what I am doing. In my eyes, I am here for a mission”.

Elinor belives that being a combat soldier means that she is granting all Israeli citizens, including Israeli Arabs like her parents, a better and quieter life. “At the end of the day, this will always be my home too”, she says before expressing her thought that despite the conflict and difficulties, the hope for peace still exists. “I still believe that peace will come and faith creates reality”.

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