NYT Engages in Front-Page IDF ‘Womenwashing’


 Netizens hail China's first female tank operators as today's Mulan

When stories like these appear in the media of an official enemy (Global Times, 7/15/19), they’re easy to recognize as propaganda.

If you read the Global Times, an English-language daily owned by China’s Communist Party, you will catch stories about the forward-thinking gender politics of the People’s Liberation Army. Just last year (2/21/23), readers found out that the PLA is recruiting “female carrier-based aircraft pilots for the first time,” and before that (4/9/19), the paper bragged that women in the PLA are “showing valor and fortitude no less than men.”

The paper (7/15/19) hailed “10 women who hurdled the training as operators of the country’s most advanced tank,” reporting that internet commentators called them “modern-day Mulans.” It even ran a photo spread (12/19/13) of the “Beautiful Female Soldiers of the PLA” with the help of China’s state wire service, Xinhua.

In the West, articles like these tend to be disregarded as government advertising that sugarcoats the country’s military expansion by portraying it as some kind of social progress. Because the paper is party-owned, and China ranks 179 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, it’s hard not to be skeptical of these pieces’ intentions.

To ‘bolster the image of the army’

 Israeli Women Fight on Front Line in Gaza, a First

The New York Times (1/19/24) reports that women in the IDF have “helped bolster the image of the [Israeli] army domestically”—even as the paper uses them for the same purpose internationally.

One should bring that same skepticism when reading a top New York Times story, “Israeli Women Fighting on the Front Lines, a First” (1/19/24), centrally located above the fold on the front page of the Saturday print edition, with a dimly lit lead photograph of two women IDF troops conversing as another watches them.

The piece, which was reported by Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner as she traveled with the IDF within the Gaza Strip, reported that “female combat soldiers and officers are serving on the front line for the first time since the war surrounding the establishment of Israel in 1948.” The Times presented this as the end of a domestic feud between conservative traditionalists and forward thinkers, saying the

question of women serving at the front pitted ultraconservative rabbis and religiously observant soldiers against feminists, secularists and critics of the country’s traditionally macho culture.

The paper declared: “Now, that debate is effectively over.”

There’s no inherent problem with writing about the concept of women in combat, which is a newsworthy event. The issue here is how the story was framed. “Their inclusion has helped bolster the image of the army domestically,” the Times related—even as it helped them to do the same thing internationally. That helps at a time when intelligence failures that may have allowed the October 7 attacks to take place have been scrutinized in Israel (Economist, 10/8/23; New Arab, 10/24/23; New York Times, 12/2/23).

The piece begins and ends with a focus on Captain Amit Busi, “only 23,” “whose hair is woven in a long braid” and who “carries up to a third of her body weight just walking around the base.” She’s

responsible not just for the lives of her subordinates—search-and-rescue engineers whose specialized training and tools help infantry troops enter damaged and booby-trapped buildings at risk of collapse—but also for the wounded soldiers they help evacuate from the battlefield.

The piece stressed

the respect she has clearly earned from her subordinates—among them Jews, Druse and Bedouin Muslim men….  Some of the male soldiers milling about said they slept well knowing that Captain Busi and her troops were guarding the base.

The Times used Busi as an emblem of the needs of the Israeli war effort forcing social progress: “Same-sex partners of slain soldiers are now legally recognized widows and widowers” since the October 7 Hamas attacks, the Times reported, adding that “at least one transgender soldier has fought on the front in Gaza.”

The Times showed no subtlety in presenting this all as a victory over conservative order, meant to land pleasantly on the ears of the paper’s liberal readers:

Despite years of derision from conservative quarters of Israeli society, female combat soldiers have become symbols of progress and equality, appearing on magazine covers and featured in television news profiles.

And, now, the front page of the New York Times.

Strong and egalitarian image


The Israeli Foreign Ministry funded a Maxim photo spread (7/07) of scantily clad IDF soldiers (including future Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot) as part of a “government-sponsored push to evoke a sexier depiction of Israel to American males” (Jewish Post, 6/22/09).

The role of women in the Israeli military has long been a part of Israel’s public image as both a strong military state and a modern egalitarian society. Recall lad-mag Maxim’s spread (7/07) of beautiful IDF women. FAIR (8/31/16) covered similar features in Vice (3/15/16, 8/28/16), long considered the hipster bible. The IDF praises its own “gender integration.” Rolling Stone (5/28/21) showed how IDF women use social media to promote the military.

Consider for a moment that “Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu proudly announced that some 44,500 women were currently serving in the Russian army,” and that “1,100 of them were directly involved in the ‘special military operation,’” a state euphemism for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine (Deutsche Welle, 11/04/23). It’s hard to imagine that this news, in the New York Times, could be framed as a needed advancement for Russian women, rather than an amplification of the Russian war effort. Newsweek (10/24/23), for example, portrayed this as a sign of Russian desperation.

But the framing of IDF women on the front page of the Times bolsters suspicions that the outlet acts in accord with Israeli government propaganda, not as a force for accountability (FAIR.org, 12/15/23, 12/12/23, 11/15/23, 10/17/23). The paper did add the disclaimer that its journalists “accepted a military transport to secure rare access to wartime Gaza, which is typically off-limits to journalists,” but added that the Times didn’t “allow the Israeli military to screen its coverage before publication.”

It’s still telling that such special access to a war zone resulted in a puff piece about participants in a military colossus, and not the human tragedy of the invaded population. The Times wasn’t alone in this framing; France 24 (1/20/24) and Times of Israel (12/6/23) ran similar stories.

Women’s participation in front-line conflict isn’t a novel story in the Middle East. The Cairo-based outlet Watani (1/24/23) recently wrote about an all-female Egyptian mine-clearing team in Mali, and Women Kurdish fighters are well covered in the Western press (Guardian, 7/19/21; Foreign Policy, 2/15/21; PBS, 2/22/21; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 7/28/23).

Less rosy reality

 Out of 1,542 IDF sexual assault complaints, just 31 indictments filed

The New York Times omitted mention of the uglier side of integration of women into the Israel Defense Forces (Jerusalem Post, 1/5/22).

And the Israeli situation isn’t as rosy as the New York Times portrays it. A “third of women soldiers doing their mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces have experienced sexual harassment at least once,” Haaretz (11/28/22) reported. The Jerusalem Post (1/5/22) noted one lawmaker who “highlighted the ongoing failures in the IDF’s handling of sexual assault within its ranks, including with harassers returning to work even though legal proceedings were not yet over.”

Toward the very end of the article on female soldiers, the Times let the real story through, saying that “buildings along the route parallel to the Mediterranean shore were flattened into layers of concrete. We saw no people, only a few dogs.” The story acknowledged: “The war has claimed the lives of about 200 Israeli soldiers and thousands of Palestinians, most of them civilians.” But then the Times gave its poster woman for female empowerment the last word:

Captain Busi said the military “does everything” to try to avoid civilian casualties and lamented the destruction of so many homes. But it was Hamas, she said, that turned Gaza into a war zone.

As the suffering in Gaza continues, it looks as if the Times is working harder and harder to find ways to distract from the world’s outrage of Israel turning what was once the world’s largest open-air prison into a lifeless moonscape. Highlighting the women who are contributing to that project is one way of doing that.


By Ari Paul