From a Girl in Khaki to a Woman in Black
When author Yaël Dayan joined the Israeli army at age 17, she was searching for adulthood. Three wars later, she's now fighting for peace.
The military plays a central role in Israeli society, defending the tiny country since it’s birth in 1948. While many Americans cannot imagine a life where military service is required, service is compulsory for Israeli citizens over the age of 18 (although some citizens are granted exemptions), and service lasts from 2 to 3 years.
Author, politician, and peace activist Yaël Dayan fought in three of Israel’s wars and offers a look at war from a woman’s perspective. Below she shares vignettes from her time with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and how her role has changed throughout the years.
I volunteered—prior to my due compulsory draft—to the IDF. The Sinai Campaign was on, I was 17, and the country was in a blackout when my mother drove me to the recruiting center. The oversized khaki uniform was hastily packed into a kitbag (skirt, jacket, sweater, and beret British army style of scratchy rough wool) along with regulatory thick panties and a cotton bra, the size measured by a male soldier’s stare.
I was led to the barracks where one of 30 beds in the long wooden room was cleared for me, among shapes and sounds of sleeping girls drafted a few days earlier. I went to sleep that night—or tried to—as Recruit 375963 Dayan, a loaded last name as my father Moshe was a General, CIC of the Israeli army.
A compulsory two years draft for women—many exempted for religious, health, or marital status—found me prepared and motivated. I did not miss the soft touch of silk or cashmere; I did not use make-up or wear jewelry (forbidden in camp anyway); I was not afraid of handling a rifle or hand grenades; and I was physically strong enough to help others in the drills. I enjoyed the social diversity and my natural leadership quality, hated the food, and used free time for reading.
I was chosen with others to go to a cadet and officer’s course. It was physically tough but enriching as a unique journey of self-discovery. I graduated as a lieutenant, commanded other recruits—men and women—and was highly motivated throughout the two years.
Army service was tough but it was an entry ticket to adult life, which at the time meant national devotion and patriotism.
Being an officer meant responsibility, punctuality, understanding the other, all qualities I doubt I was blessed with by nature.
My good friends were new immigrant young women from Yemen and Hungary, my commander was from a Kibbutz, my boyfriend was a Brit, and pluralism and tolerance were daily implemented values.
I wrote a diary woven of reality and fiction, and when my two-year service ended I turned it into my first novel, New Face In The Mirror.
Israel is at the brink of war. Threatened and debating a preemptive strike.
I am drafted as a reserve officer, in General Sharon’s Brigade on the Israeli Egyptian border, a young woman, writer of three novels translated in many languages, single and opinionated.
I am good-looking in the Khaki uniform, which has changed since my draft a decade earlier.
I wear light cotton shirt and pants, fit to size, watch and bracelet and ring and long hair, a wide-brimmed Australian hat and not a worry about regulations. My commander is the IDF spokesman who attached me to the division to report back to a ‘pool’ as civilian journalists are not allowed frontline.
I am the only girl soldier in the unit, as we are storming the Egyptian defense lines toward the Suez Canal, I am holding a machine gun, happy not to deploy it, finding hideaways to wash with a water canteen or a Jerry can, riding a jeep driven by my husband-to-be Colonel Dov Sion, feeling proud in victory and not motivated by hatred for the enemy. I cried tears of solidarity when our soldiers on the Jerusalem-Jordanian front touched the Wailing Wall and uncontrollable tears of sorrow when entering Egyptian camps spattered by corpses.
I took off the uniform and the ranks and changed into a wedding dress, sure that our total victory would result in withdrawal from occupied territories and the signing of a Peace Treaty. Farewell to Khaki, I believed.
On Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays the sirens sounded me into the Khaki uniform again.
A mother of two, I was back in uniform, participating in a war that took us by surprise—against Syria and Egypt—this time as a reserve officer in charge of volunteers in the central hospital.
Battle thunders were replaced by sighs and cries and the smoke replaced by the smell of burnt flesh and alcohol. Dov was a liaison officer in the Intelligence, and our children were cared for by a nanny.
A different war this was. Long, foggy, and there was no clear way to feel victorious.
I wore civilian clothes on duty, feeling at a loss for words and meaning. No winners in this war and a sense of a relief when it was over, at a heavy toll. It was the last no-choice defense war, and I packed the uniform and the ranks and stowed them away.
I wrote a novel called Three Weeks In October and resumed civilian life as mother and author.
‘Peace For Galilee War’ 1982
Intifadas in the occupied territories, stalling Peace talks with the Palestinians.
Attack on Gaza, rockets from Gaza.
Attacks on civilians.
I am elected to the Knesset.
Oslo Peace talks, the assassination of Prime-minister Rabin.
My son in Khaki uniform, my daughter is in the army for two years. Another choice war, dead children, peace drifting away by unwilling leadership, more terror, shame at times replacing patriotic pride.
Often the Khaki uniform is stained by fanatics, another choice war and peace is shelved almost beyond reach. I demonstrate in the City-Square against Settlements and Occupation, for a Two-State Solution.
I am a grandmother of four, and for the last four decades, I am a woman in black fighting for Peace.
Yaël Dayan is an Israeli author and political figure. Her father, Moshe Dayan, was the military leader who oversaw the stunning capture of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Like her father, Dayan served in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, of which she was a member for ten years with the Labor Party. An outspoken activist, Dayan has been involved with Peace Now and other organizations fostering the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. She has written five novels, including Three Weeks in October, about the Yom Kippur War and Death Has Two Sons. Among Dayan’s nonfiction works are Israel Journal, a memoir about the Six-Day War, and My Father, His Daughter, a biography of Moshe Dayan.