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

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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