(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi rebuffed repeated complaints and queries by heads of religious pre-military academies over the integration of female soldiers in frontline forces during a meeting Sunday.
"Don't get confused about who gives the orders," Ashkenazi told a group of rabbis, according to one participant. "There is only one chief of staff in the IDF."
Ashkenazi made the comments during a conference in Tel Aviv attended by heads of some thirty pre-military academies - religious and secular.
According to heads of secular pre-military academies who attended the conference, Ashkenazi was queried repeatedly by Rabbi Eli Sadan, head of Bnei David Pre-military Academy - located in the Samaria settlement Eli - and other rabbis, who voiced their concern over the IDF's intention to integrate women in all divisions of the army, including combat units.
The rabbis raised their objections to a set of recommendations submitted last week by an IDF commission calling for full integration of women.
The rabbis were referring to a commission appointed by IDF OC Human Resources Department Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern and chaired by Stern's predecessor, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yehudah Segev.
In its final report, the commission recommended that both "men and women be utilized equally according to the soldiers' pertinent criteria and personal qualities and not according to his or her sex... men and women will be given the same opportunities in all areas of the IDF."
However, Ashkenazi told the rabbis that he had not yet read the recommendations and, therefore, could not comment on them. Nevertheless, the rabbis continued to express their dismay. Finally, Ashkenazi rebuffed them.
"The rabbis monopolized the precious little time we had with the chief of staff," said one of the heads of the secular pre-military academies after the meeting. "We all know that they have religious problems with coed army service. But that's their problem."
The confrontation punctuated underlying tension between rabbis and religious soldiers and the secular IDF leadership.
Religious Zionist and secular IDF interests dovetail in motivation to serve in combat units, patriotism and identification with Zionist ideals.
But on certain key issues, such as using the IDF to dismantle Jewish settlements and Shabbat observance, religious Zionists are often at odds with the IDF's secular Zionist leadership. Full integration of women in combat units is another potential flashpoint.
For young men from Orthodox religious backgrounds, coming into physical contact with members of the opposite sex is highly restricted by halacha and is, as a result, socially unacceptable. The forced coed environment in the IDF is one of the main reasons cited by haredi Jews for their adamant opposition to military service.
One of the common complaints of religious soldiers is being forced to serve with women in armored personnel vehicles. Soldiers must sometimes remain in these vehicles for over 24 hours eating, sleeping and relieving themselves in tight quarters.
Another common complaint is having to physical education classes given by female instructors.
At the same time, the rabbis who head the pre-military academies are wary of spearheading a visible campaign against integration of women for fear they will be accused of religious coercion.
That explains the unwillingness of Sadan and other rabbis who took part in the meeting to talk with The Jerusalem Post about integrating women. These rabbis rightly point out that many secular heads of pre-military academies and high-ranking IDF officers oppose the move for purely tactical, military reasons.
"The US and Britain stopped integrating females in combat units after an extensive study they conducted," said Dani Zamir, head of the secular Oranim - Yitzhak Rabin Pre-military Academy.
"The study found that the units were less cohesive and that the vast majority of females could not perform on the same physical level as men.
"But I don't identify with the rabbis' religious concerns," added Zamir. "It's weird to me that religious guys can't hug and kiss their female counterparts."