Middle Israel: War of the sexes haunts IDF

Nationalist rabbis’ call to revolt against women’s combat postings will crash at takeoff, as observant women are voting by the feet, enlisting in ever-increasing numbers.

March 11, 2017 18:30
women IDF

Women in the IDF. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Ordered to storm with 10,000 peasants a 900-chariot armada, the eventually victorious Barak the son of Abinoam had one condition: “Go with me,” he told Deborah, the biblical heroine who was Israel’s leader and the northern general’s boss.

This ancient precedent, whereby Deborah indeed joined Barak’s troops in the battlefield, and another woman, Yael, killed the enemy’s king, is no inspiration to the rabbis who now declare war on the IDF’s accelerating inclusion of women combat units.

“They drove our girls crazy,” said Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, head of the Bnei David pre-military school in the West Bank settlement of Eli, to an auditorium packed with male students. “They enlist them to the army, where they enter as Jewesses and ultimately emerge as non-Jews... their value system will be disrupted, the priorities of home and career,” he said, and ordered: “One must reject this!”

“This” is the emergence of the woman warrior.

What began in 1995 with a High Court of Justice ruling that the IDF let women apply to its Flight Academy soon produced women pilots and then also naval officers. This breaking of convention then proceeded to a successful experiment with the mixed, light-infantry Caracal Battalion, which does border ambushes. The Border Police then joined the trend along with various rescue and evacuation units.

The trend kept accelerating. In recent years, women joined artillery units that operate long-range missiles, and air force units that operate unmanned aerial vehicles.

Amid all this commotion, the number of women in combat positions more than doubled over the past half-decade to 7% of female inductees. By the end of the current year, there are expected to be 2,500 women warriors in the IDF.

Having already seen women serve on planes, boats and artillery batteries, the IDF decided to experimentally open to women combat engineering units as well as the prestigious Unit 669, which does combat search and rescue, and also the Armored Corps, where battlefield action is more intensely violent than in all combat roles women have so far been offered in the IDF.

It was there, in the attempt to swamp the Armored Corps with women, that opponents of the battlefield’s feminization, like Levenstein, lost their patience and also their cool.

Himself a former Armored Corps lieutenant-colonel, the charismatic Levenstein previously drew fire for calling gays “perverts,” deriding the IDF’s concern for civilian casualties, and calling Reform Judaism “a Christian denomination.” Some therefore dismiss him as an anachronism and an anecdote. He is neither.

Having supplied the IDF with more than a thousand eventual officers since his school’s establishment in 1988, an achievement for which the program won the Israel Prize, Levenstein represents something broader and deeper than what his unrefined rhetoric suggests.

In terms of his immediate, nationalist ultra-Orthodox circle, Levenstein’s vitriol is fueled by that school of thought’s leader, Rabbi Zvi Tau. “People should go out to the streets to wage a civil revolt,” said the 80-year-old sage. “We will fulfill no order and no instruction that runs against modesty,” he said.

The two rabbis’ dismay is shared by former IDF chief rabbi Yisrael Weiss, but opposition to the IDF’s feminine revolution transcends the rabbinical realm.

“A woman’s job is to be a mother and bring children to the world,” said Avigdor Kahalani, a former IDF brigadier-general and hero of the Yom Kippur War, in which his battalion spearheaded 100 tanks’ defeat of 700 invading Syrian tanks. “After the war,” he warned, “a woman’s motherly feeling will not be the same.”

A similarly secular fear was voiced by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yiftah Ron-Tal,a former commander of the Ground Forces and currently chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation, who reportedly said the IDF’s feminization of combat positions is fed by leftist organizations that want to weaken the IDF. He later said his words were taken out of context.

Levenstein, apparently alarmed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s charge that he hurt the IDF, its heritage and basic Israeli values, delivered a televised apology, not for the substance of his statements but “for the style.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a meeting with the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, joined the defense minister’s counterattack, hailing “Hebrew women’s” performance in combat roles “since Yael and Deborah.”

The politicians who condone the IDF’s gender policy may do so for electoral reasons, but for the IDF what began as a grudging concession to women’s pressure has morphed into a professional salute and an organizational thirst which hark back a century.

The utility of women’s wartime deployment first became evident in World War I, when 1.6 million British and German women worked in munitions factories, a previously unthinkable occupation that now proved socially feasible and militarily crucial.

In World War II, when Nazi ideology kept women at home, the Allies’ industrial deployment of women gave them a decisive advantage. Even more dramatically, thousands of Soviet women joined the actual fighting, including an ace pilot who downed a dozen German aircraft above Stalingrad and a legendary sniper who shot dead 309 Germans.

The Soviet insertion of women into the battlefield was circumstantial rather than ideological. The loss of entire armies during 1941 made it difficult for the Red Army to turn down thousands of women who demanded to join the fighting.

In the US, odd as this may sound, women were first admitted into West Point only in 1976. Women’s roles have since steadily expanded and climbed until in 2000 the navy placed a warship in the Persian Gulf under a woman’s command, in 2004 the air force let a woman command a fighter squadron, and in 2013 the Pentagon lifted the ban on women’s service in units tasked with direct combat. Similar trends are well under way in European armies.

Israel, then, was simply catching up with others, and with much better reasons, considering its chronic demographic inferiority compared with surrounding nations.

Moreover, the IDF had actually deployed women extensively from the day it was born, when women fought in the Palmah units that decided the War of Independence and before that in all three underground organizations during the British Mandate.

It was with these memories on its hard disk that the IDF now took a step ahead of other armies when it decided to experiment with women’s service in the Armored Corps, where they had been serving for decades as instructors.

The dilemma from the IDF’s viewpoint was no longer whether to deploy women in combat, but to what extent. What it did not predict, as it began expanding women’s roles, was that this would provoke some in its other rapidly growing reservoir of quality conscripts – nationalist Orthodoxy.

With the number of observant cadets in some recent officer school intakes reaching 50%, religious leaders like rabbis Tau and Levenstein calculated that they are in a position to steer IDF policies so as to suit their personal inclinations. It was a miscalculation.

The IDF realized it is being drawn into civilian controversies in which its involvement should be reduced to a minimum. That is why it discontinued chaplaincy programs that invited civilian lecturers who preached observance, and also Education Command programs with the liberal Hartman Institute.

In the same spirit, a directive issued by Planning Division head Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin last year overruled then-IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz’s demand that the directive allow soldiers to refuse participating in missions alongside women.

Norkin, who has been appointed as the next commander of the air force, had the directive allow soldiers to request exemption from a mission alongside women, but at the same time made it allow commanders to reject such a request.

The army thus drew a line in the sand that marked the extent of its patience with nationalist rabbis’ meddling in its affairs. This attitude was echoed in an attack on Levenstein’s statement by 28 fellow heads of pre-military schools.

A similar attitude is being implied by the conscripts themselves, every day.

According to IDF Personnel Division data, the number of observant women enlisting to the IDF has doubled this decade, and the number of observant women officers rose by more than one-third, while observant women’s share in overall female enlistment has crossed 25% and, most alarmingly for rabbis like Levenstein, a 10th of the women in combat positions are now observant.

This voting by the feet is to nationalist ultra-Orthodoxy a setback no less than the IDF’s gender policy, probably more, because alongside this feminine groundswell are cohorts of observant brothers, fathers and boyfriends who applaud it. Apparently, before calling for a revolt, Tau forgot to count his troops.


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