A female IDF soldier shaking out a blanket during a week-long survival course for women in the infantry at an undisclosed location in Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
According to the standards demanded by the ultra-Orthodox Chotam organization, the Liba Center and Brother in Arms, which mount public campaigns against women serving as IDF combat soldiers, I too should have been disqualified from combat service.
As a 19-year-old immigrant from the United States, I enlisted into the IDF, determined to perform my duty as a combat soldier. I requested to serve in the Armored Corps and trained as a tank driver. I served with hesder yeshiva students, who combined their military service with several years of yeshiva study.
During basic training I had to complete an obstacle course, which among other elements included jumping over a high wall. I was able to do so without any gear, but once loaded with a combat vest, ammunition and my rifle, the wall proved insurmountable for me.
Yet I and the others in my unit of yeshiva students who did not succeed in jumping over the wall still passed basic training and went on to serve as combat soldiers. The IDF has long known that jumping over a wall is only one indication, among many, of combat fitness, and accordingly makes a decision on passing a soldier based on an overall, wide-ranging assessment of the soldiers’ abilities and motivation.
Fortunately for me there were no organizations passing out pamphlets at traffic intersections claiming that my inability to jump over the wall made me ineligible for the combat service I desired. My maleness insulated me from the kind of gender-based scrutiny promoted by these ultra-Orthodox organizations.
A substantial portion of my training was delivered by female IDF instructors, whose knowledge of tanks and their inner workings far surpassed mine. What these instructors had in common with the hesder yeshiva students in my unit was an unparalleled level of motivation, commitment and passion.
Many of the yeshiva students in my unit were not exactly the athletic type, to say the least, but that never prevented them from excelling as soldiers. The same traits that enabled the yeshiva students to be great soldiers also apply to women.
I used to wonder why our female tank instructors were never given the chance to use their skills in the field. In recent years the IDF indeed decided that they and other female soldiers would make worthy combat soldiers, similar to the yeshiva students who serve with me, and thus has made more combat positions open to women, including in the Armored Corps.
It is worth noting that while some retired IDF generals have come out against current IDF policy of opening up the combat ranks to women, the current battle against female combat service is being led by those in the Zionist-Haredi community.
When examining the beliefs of many of the rabbis behind these campaigns, such as Rabbi Zvi Tau of the Liba Center, it becomes clear that their arguments against allegedly inferior female combat performance are simply a cover for those whose underlying interests are their religious belief of the need to keep the army all male and in some cases keep women out of the public sphere altogether.
The IDF has to tread carefully in allowing the women in its ranks to realize their potential, while also keeping its fighters of both genders healthy and whole, and of course succeeding in combat and in protecting the state. An honest and transparent public conversation on how to do so is essential, especially in a country with mandatory conscription, but the conversation has to start from a place of respect for women, their autonomy, and their rightful place in the public sphere.
Extremist religious beliefs that women have no place outside of the home bear no relevance to this conversation. The cynical, religiously inspired campaigns alleging inferior female combat performance lack basis, employ double standards, and should be discredited by all fair-minded Israelis.
The writer lives in Jerusalem and is senior development associate for Shatil, the action arm of the New Israel Fund.