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Deborah's Modern-Day Successor Must Move Her Troops Adroitly : Israeli Army General Is a Woman of Action

December 11, 1986|MARK PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

In the Book of Judges, the Hebrew general Deborah is described as "a woman of action." Although Amira Dotan, the first woman general of an Israelite army in 3,000 years, does not lead troops into combat as did her biblical forebearer, the same description applies.

In fact, the 39-year-old brigadier general who commands Israel's Women's Corps says that her action may be the decisions she has to make on when to pull her troops off the battlefield, since they are so thoroughly integrated into the military.

Women's Corps soldiers serve in most units of the army, navy and air force. While they do not serve in combat, they do serve in many front line units, so when war threatens, Dotan must decide when to evacuate her troops and when to send them back. Because war clouds appear so frequently in the Mideast, and hostilities often begin without warning, the timing of such a decision can be critical.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for example, Dotan was a colonel in charge of the Women's Corps' Southern Command and had to travel under fire to the Sinai front to supervise the evacuation.

"There was bombing," she recalled in a recent interview during a visit to Orange County. "There was war," and before the operation was completed, one woman was killed and two others were wounded. Several other of her soldiers were wounded recently when Palestinian guerrillas threw hand grenades into a crowd of recruits at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.

Sending members of the Women's Corps to rejoin their units in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion "was one of my hardest decisions," Dotan said, mainly because there was considerable physical risk.

But service in the Lebanese occupation was troubling for a number of men and women in the military, Dotan said, because it was "the first time in Israel there was no consensus on a war. It makes things difficult." Dotan said those of her soldiers who felt they "were not able to handle the situation" of serving with the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon, for whatever reason, were simply assigned elsewhere.

Under Dotan, members of the Women's Corps "do everything but fighting," she said, and they are trained to do that if necessary, receiving both hand-to-hand combat and small arms training. Such training is "important for your self-esteem and awareness," Dotan said, as well as for self-defense, conditioning the young women to do their work in the military "always with open eyes and open ears."

Dotan was in the United States for a hectic, three-week, nationwide speaking tour to various Jewish organizations, sponsored by a group called the Israeli Forum. She visited Orange County to catch up with an old friend from the Women's Corps, Raya Jaffee, a retired lieutenant colonel now living in Newport Beach.

"A half a day like this is paradise," the general said during the brief break from her three-speech-a-day, cross-country schedule. After cruising Newport Bay for a few hours with Jaffee and her husband, Mel, and some friends, Dotan still found time to squeeze in an appearance at a luncheon for the Women's Auxiliary of the Jewish Senior Center of Orange County.

Has 3 Children

A second-generation sabra, or native, the poised, articulate Dotan was graduated from Tel Aviv University, with a major in psychology. She is married to a Tel Aviv businessman and has three children, a son, 14, and two daughters, ages 9 and 16.

According to Jaffee, Dotan's promotion in October did not come easily. "There was resistance from the men" in the military, Jaffee said. "It was a big fight. The existence of the Women's Corps is a controversial issue," Jaffee said, since many in the Israeli military believe that female soldiers should be under the undivided authority of regular commands.

Jaffee said Dotan's promotion was "a victory for the status of women" but emphasized that the struggle for advancement "didn't begin with Amira. She won the battle, but the battle was going on for years."

Dotan said she doesn't know whether there was opposition to her elevation, adding, "I did nothing for this promotion." She does acknowledge that after Israel's 1948 War of Independence, when many women distinguished themselves in the fighting, there was considerable debate about whether women should serve in the military in any capacity.

"A lot of people didn't want them to serve," Dotan said. "It was a big argument in the Knesset," Israel's parliament. The issue was settled with the establishment of the noncombatant Women's Corps, most of whose duties were clerical.

Today, women are drafted into the army at age 18, after completing high school, unless they are already married with small children or come from a strictly Orthodox Jewish background. Dotan is pragmatic about the estimated 25% of young Israeli women requesting the religious exemption.

10% Make It a Career

"I understand that," she said. "They have a different kind of life than I have."

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