IDF Caracal Battalion .
(photo credit: IDF)
Two discernible and potentially conflicting trends arise from the manpower data published this week by the IDF on the percentage of eligible young men and women who are conscripted for mandatory military service.
On one hand, there has been a sharp rise in the number of religious women who are opting to enlist in the IDF instead of performing National Service or receiving an exemption. In all, 2,159 enlisted in 2015 compared to 1,853 in 2014. Women as a whole – both religious and non-religious – are enlisting at a rate of 58%, the same as in 2012.
Also, more and more women are being integrated into combat units. There has been a 400% rise in the number of women serving in combat roles, with more mixed-gender battalions opening every year.
Brig.-Gen. Eran Shani, speaking before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday, noted that the IDF is considering allowing women to serve in the Armored Corps and in the elite 669 air force rescue unit.
In parallel with the increasing integration of women in the IDF, there is a potentially conflicting trend. The number of religious soldiers is growing. In 2015, 2,475 haredi young men were conscripted. And religious soldiers as a percentage of the total number of IDF soldiers is also growing due to demographic changes.
A weakening of rabbinic authority seems to be one of the causes of both trends – both the higher conscription rate of religious women and of haredi men.
Though a majority of religious Zionist rabbis opposes IDF service for women, a number of institutions have been created to give support to religious females who choose to enlist. For instance, the NGO Alumah provides religious women with advice and intervenes on their behalf vis-avis the IDF command. Tzahali, a pre-military academy, prepares religious women for military service not unlike the many academies that exist for religious men. Few rabbis openly support these bodies.
Haredi men who enlist are also bucking rabbinic leadership’s authority. They often face stiff opposition from family members, friends and neighbors. And despite rabbinic opposition, large percentages of religious Zionist or modern Orthodox Israeli men enlist without first attending a yeshiva, a pre-military academy or joining a hesder yeshiva that combines military service and religious study.
These two distinct trends – the increasing integration of women and the rise in the number of religious men – could potentially result in a clash of interests.
Integrating larger numbers of women in the IDF entails opening more avenues of service. The sharp rise in the number of women who serve in combat units is one example.
But in order to make the IDF truly gender egalitarian, the length of service of IDF soldiers must be based on the role they serve and not their sex.
Because they serve only two years, women are prevented from serving in many IDF positions unless they agree to volunteer. Also, exemption criteria should be identical for men and women. Women need to be part of the decision-making process on the highest levels within the IDF.
But religious men are the main force within in the IDF preventing the full integration of women – both religious and non-religious – into the IDF. As the number of religious men in the IDF grows as percentage of the total, opposition to the integration of women will grow as well.
Accommodating these conflicting trends is one of the major manpower challenges facing the IDF. The IDF has long ago abandoned the “melting pot” model for conscription in parallel with a change in Israeli society as a whole toward a more multicultural mosaic of groups – haredi, Arab, religious Zionist, secular, Sephardi, Druse, and Beduin. This shift has created opportunities and challenges.
The IDF has become both more gender egalitarian and open to the special needs of haredi and religious men.
As long as Israel maintains the ideal of universal conscription or “the people’s army,” the IDF will have to find ways of integrating diverse segments of the population.
Succeeding in navigating conflicting interests will make the IDF stronger.
Talents that previously went untapped can be enlisted in the concerted effort to defend Israel from its many enemies. This week’s data seem to prove that it possible to accommodate the needs of diverse groups, providing yet another reason to be optimistic about Israel’s future.