IDF chief calls for more women in power in talk here

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A gathering of about 150 Israelis at a private Los Altos Hills home on Sunday heard the top commander of the Israeli Defense Force outline his vision for his army's future: more women in power and fewer antiquated weapons.

Speaking in part to drum up support for the Friends of the IDF, an American group that raises money for Israeli soldiers and their families, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz said he has ordered that every position in which women can serve will be open to them.

"He said that sometime in the future, we will see a woman major-general, and that it will happen naturally, as opposed to being a hand-picked posting, as more and more women come up through the ranks," said retired Brig.-Gen. Eliezar Hemeli, the executive director of the New York-headquartered Friends of the IDF.

"Women in combat positions are still a problem in the IDF, and Israeli society is not quite ready for that, so he didn't touch on that issue right now. But he does want to see women move much deeper into the higher ranks, into positions now occupied only by males. He said he will personally make sure it happens."

The Iranian-born Mofaz, who has been an official guest of the U.S. military during part of his stay, is seven days into a 1-1/2 week jaunt through the United States that has taken him to military bases and schools. He has also been meeting with politicians, U.S. military personnel and Jewish leaders.

Most of his six-hour stop in the Bay Area on Sunday was spent at the Los Altos Hills home of Kobi Tal and Rifka Barlev, who are Israelis. After lunch was served, he spoke in the backyard for about an hour and then answered questions, all in Hebrew.

"It was a very special event," Barlev said. "It felt blessed in some way, very high-spirited."

Mofaz, who has been Israel's top commander for about 16 months, caused a bit of a stir toward the end of last year when he expressed concern that an armed conflict would likely break out in 1999.

He dropped no such bombshells on Sunday, but he did take aim at some expensive weapons systems that he wants to phase out.

"He mentioned that the army is dealing with big budget cuts this year," Hemeli said. "The way he has decided to deal with it is to get rid of some weapon systems that are old and for which maintenance is highly expensive.

"He wants to put more emphasis on a qualitative edge, meaning high tech. That's where we [Israel] have the superiority and it's better to spend money there than on things that are 30, 40 and even 50 years old."

Mofaz also spoke about the importance of the Friends of the IDF, particularly its drive to establish a permanent scholarship fund for soldiers.

"For soldiers who serve three years and then don't have enough money to go to university, we would like to set up something for them," Barlev said. "It has not been determined yet what we're going to do."

The Friends of the IDF has raised more than $7 million in the United States this year according to its assistant national director, Serge Butman.

Not a penny of the money goes to the Israeli army per se, he said. Instead, it goes toward amenities that benefit the morale and spirit of the soldiers, such as building or refurbishing social halls and gymnasiums, sending care packages and providing cell phones to call family members when they're injured on duty.

"We take care of the well-being of soldiers in Israel while remaining apolitical and [non]-military," Butman said. "We don't take political stances on anything."

Butman said Friends of the IDF is "dying to open an office in San Francisco." There are currently offices in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Hemeli said a small branch office might open in the Bay Area, but until then, Barlev is the local coordinator for Friends of the IDF supporters.

Friends of the IDF was founded in 1942 in Palestine, said Hemeli. Renamed in Israel as the Association for the Well-Being of Israeli Soldiers, the group began in the United States in the 1970s and became an official nonprofit agency in the early 1980s.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.