By Ben Caspit
April 10, 2017
Anyone who has participated in Israel Defence Forces (IDF) activities of late, or even just covered those activities for that matter, will have noticed a growing presence of women in an increasing number of field positions, including combat positions. All around the world, the IDF is seen as a trailblazer. It is perceived as a liberal army, constantly opening new opportunities for women, who volunteer to serve in combat positions.
The air force already has dozens of women pilots and combat navigators. The navy has women serving on missile boats, while a Dvora-class patrol boat has a woman commander. The infantry can boast of four combat battalions made up of women, who serve mainly along Israel's quieter borders, while the Intelligence Corps has a particularly high number of women, including some who serve in challenging field positions. In February, the IDF announced the launch of a pilot program to train all-women tank teams.
While these developments are taking place, there has been a parallel culture war among the different sectors of Israeli society, focusing on what happens in the army. The announcement that the IDF was examining the possibility of incorporating women in the Tank Corps immediately set off a fight, bringing the phenomenon to the public's attention with a loud blast. Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the head of the Pre-Military Academy in the settlement of Eli, responded with a violent and threatening speech, in which he called on young women from the religious Zionist sector to refuse to enlist in the army at all. In his speech, he claimed that Jewish women who enlist in the IDF come out "non-Jewish."
His comments prompted a huge storm within the religious Zionist sector. Until recently, women from this sector did not enlist in the army, often opting instead for civil service. The number of women from this sector who do enlist has increased over the past few years, with some of them even volunteering for challenging field positions. Now the more conservative rabbis from this sector have responded to this by declaring war. A number of organizations and groups of activists have hit the streets with flyers and stickers, claiming, "We need to save the IDF." Some of these activists claim that liberal and left-wing agents have infiltrated the upper echelons of the IDF and that they are conspiring to weaken the army so that Israel can be defeated in the battlefield. Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich of HaBayit HaYehudi took it a step further by calling on young religious Zionists to "skip one recruitment cycle" in order to teach the IDF a lesson. In other words, he wants them to attack the IDF's soft underbelly by enlisting less.
The IDF cannot allow for a decline in the enlistment of young men from the religious Zionist sector. Over the past few years, they have filled its combat units and volunteered en masse for command and officer tracks. Compulsory service for men was recently shortened by a few months, while recruitment in Israel is decreasing because of the growing strength (in percentage of the Israeli population) of the ultra-Orthodox community, which does not send its young men to the army. Parallel to this is similar growth among the Israeli Arab population, which also does not serve. As a result, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot finds himself caught in the eye of a cultural storm over values, but with logistical and operational implications as well.
On March 22, Eizenkot and IDF spokesman Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, who was recently appointed head of the IDF's Manpower Directorate, met with a large delegation of leading rabbis from the religious Zionist sector. This meeting was complicated but ultimately successful. Eizenkot clarified that the army is not trying to increase the service of young men or undermine the principles of the status quo (where women serve with men in combat units, while their housing and bathrooms are separated) in any way. He explained that the aforementioned tank crews are simply part of a pilot program, which will result, if anything, in the creation of a handful of tank crews made up exclusively of women, with no "mingling of the sexes." Eizenkot also pointed out that just 15 young women are participating in this experiment.
Torn between opposing ideals, Eizenkot is trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. He cannot afford a rift between the religious Zionist sector and the IDF, but at the same time, he cannot allow rabbis to dictate the agenda and values of the IDF, as set by Israel's founders some 70 years ago.
Don't fool yourselves, the rabbis were told at that meeting. According to a military source, the rabbis were also told that they were not the ones to come up with the idea of separate barracks and restrooms for men and women in the army. The order has existed in the IDF since day one. The chief of staff promised to enforce this order more vigorously and ensure that there are no exceptions. The rabbis also received an assurance that the army is not being run according to the agenda of feminist organizations, nor does it subject itself to such groups. The IDF's foremost value is still victory, not equality, a top army brass told the rabbis at the meeting, adding that this was not about to change anytime soon.
Eizenkot and Almoz also provided the rabbis in the delegation with up-to-date figures on enlistment and volunteering. The rabbis were told that the army has utilized the women who want to volunteer for combat positions to maximum effect, and the demon isn't as bad as the rabbis might imagine. It is not as if anyone expects a torrent of women to volunteer for the IDF's combat units, effectively making them "mixed units," the IDF seniors explained. According to Eizenkot, the media is simply manipulating the story.
Most of the rabbis who attended the meeting left more at ease than they were when they arrived. Nevertheless, the public commotion and social buzz persist. They may have even intensified.
Eizenkot hopes to establish the current status quo of women in combat units as the norm and restore calm. Even if he succeeds, however, everyone now realizes that the days in which the IDF was the flag-bearer for liberal, progressive and egalitarian values are gone. There is now an increased presence in the army of religious Zionists who believe that they are right to claim a foothold and a greater voice in the decision-making process and in formulating the IDF's values. Israel has shifted to the right politically. Over the years, it has become more religious and more conservative. There is no reason why these phenomena would skip over the IDF, which is still described as the "army of the people."