(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Heads of religious pre-military academies were shocked by recommendations released Monday by an IDF commission calling for full integration of women in combat units.
The commission, appointed by IDF OC Human Resources Department Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern and chaired by Stern's predecessor, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yehudah Segev, 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."
The officers and academics who made up the commission proposed that women no longer be barred from any unit because of their gender and that women serving in combat jobs would serve the same length of time as men, the officials said.
At present, men are usually conscripted for three years and women for two.
The recommendations, if adopted, would strain already tense relations between the army and heads of religious Zionist institutions who educate high school graduates before, during and after military service.
When it comes to motivation to serve in combat units, patriotism and identification with Zionist ideals, religious Zionist interests dovetail with those of secular Zionism. But on certain key issues, such as using the IDF to dismantle Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria 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.
The IDF's interest in maintaining good relations with religious soldiers has become more pronounced in recent years as the number of combat soldiers and low- and middle-level officers drawn from religious Zionist ranks has grown proportionately. Unlike secular Israelis, many of these soldiers see military service as a religious duty, adding a dimension of emotional fervor and dedication.
According to unofficial estimates, while religious Zionist soldiers make up no more than 15 percent of the IDF, as many as 40% become officers in combat units. A disproportionately high number of religious soldiers were killed in action during the Second Lebanon War along with the traditional Israeli ideological elite of kibbutzniks and moshavniks.
Pre-military academy heads said they had been led to believe by high-ranking IDF officers that the committee would be sympathetic to the needs of religious soldiers. The pre-military academy heads also noted strong opposition to the integration of women among many secular IDF officers.
In fact, the heads of the pre-military academies were so convinced that the committee would not adopt a pro-integration stance that they refused to believe a news item published Monday in Yediot Aharonot that correctly described the committee's recommendations.
Only after the rabbis received the hard copy of the committee's findings and recommendations late Monday morning did they realize that their requests to limit coed military service in combat units had been rejected by the committee.
Full integration of women in combat units would not affect all religious soldiers. Both hesder soldiers, who combine 16 months of army service with yeshiva studies, and the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi units, who serve two years, are placed in segregated or semi-segregated platoons where contact with female soldiers is highly regulated and limited.
In contrast, the graduates of some 16 religious pre-military academies, who serve an entire three-year stint - usually in combat units - and who often (over 50% of the time) go on to an additional year of the officers training course, are in totally integrated environments with secular soldiers.
Presently, the vast majority of women serve far from the front lines. All told, only around 1,500 women serve in combat jobs - 2.5% of female conscripts, according to army figures.
For young men from Orthodox backgrounds, physical contact with members of the opposite sex is both socially unacceptable and highly restricted by halacha. 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 physical education classes given by female instructors.
However, the pre-military academy heads are wary of making their requests for separate service smack of religious coercion.
They claim that similar attempts in other Western armies to integrate female soldiers in combat units have failed terribly. They claim that regardless of one's religious convictions, coed military service undermines cohesion and introduces inhibitions that are detrimental to the war effort.
Other Israelis have voiced concerns that the public would not tolerate women being killed or falling captive. However, the death last year of IDF flight technician Keren Tendler, whose helicopter was downed by Hizbullah fire over Lebanon, did not draw a public backlash against women in battle.
Aerial combat was opened to women following a successful petition to the Supreme Court in 1995 by Alice Miller, a 23-year-old who wanted to be a pilot but was barred by air force regulations. Miller won, and though she later failed the flight school entrance exams, the ruling paved the way for others. Israel's first woman fighter pilot, Roni Zuckerman, won her wings in 2001 at age 20.
Maariv reported Monday that a weapons system operator who graduated flight school in the late 1990s recently became the first mother to serve in the cockpit of an Israeli fighter plane, returning to reserve duty after giving birth five months ago.
According to the new recommendations, units could only exclude women after getting the express permission of the defense minister and a parliamentary defense committee, Israel Radio reported, adding that the committee would urge the military to implement its recommendations within five years.
AP contributed to this report.