Women, faith and the IDF

If four years ago just 4% of front-line troops were women, today 7% make up combat units and by next year that number is expected to rise to 9%.

January 3, 2017 21:20
3 minute read.
female soldier

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)

The rise in the number of religious male soldiers being drafted into the IDF threatens to clash with another significant trend: the increasing integration of females in all areas of IDF service, including in many combat roles.

As The Jerusalem Post’s Military Correspondent Anna Ahronheim reported this week, there has been a steady rise in the number of women being drafted into combat units and more are expected to be integrated in coming years.

If four years ago just 4% of front-line troops were women, today 7% make up combat units and by next year that number is expected to rise to 9%.

The IDF is considering opening additional combat units to women as well. Brig.-Gen. Eran Shani, head of the Human Resource Planning and Management Division said the IDF will be reexamining the possibility of integrating women into the Armored Corps.

Women will also be integrated into the IAF’s Unit 669, which specializes in search and rescue missions, and the Engineering Corps.

And as the percentage of women serving in combat roles has risen, the percentage of women in clerical roles has dropped. Just 7% serve in clerical positions today compared to 25% in 1998.

Women are also taking command of combat units. In October, Maj. Reut (last name was withheld for security reasons) was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and was made commander of the Sky Rider Battalion, becoming the second woman to take command of a combat unit.

There is also a woman who commands a battle ship in the navy.

However, the increasing diversification of female roles in the IDF is clashing with another trend: the rise in the number of religious male soldiers, which is connected to the “religionization” of the IDF.

Two religious groups are contributing to this religionization process – haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and religious Zionists. Haredi men are under increasing pressure to enlist in the IDF and larger numbers are joining. In the 2015 draft year, which ended in July 2016, the number of haredim drafted was 2,475. This year, the IDF is aiming to draft 3,200 haredi soldiers.

Since 2007, the number of haredim enlisting in the military has grown nine-fold. The IDF is making efforts to accommodate the religious demands of these soldiers, in particular gender separation. A new haredi Paratroop Brigade, in addition to the existing Netzah Yehuda and Tomer battalions is being planned, which, it is hoped, will attract more young haredi men. Haredim are also be enlisted in men-only units in the navy and intelligence.

But as more haredi-friendly zones are created within the IDF, women will see their service options decrease.

In parallel with the integration of haredim, larger numbers of religious Zionist soldiers have climbed the IDF ranks and are now commanders. Many of them are opposed to the integration of women.

In November, dozens of religious Zionist rabbis signed a petition calling on Education Minister Naftali Bennett not to fund organizations that encourage religious women to enlist in the IDF. Rabbis also came out against the drafting of women after Shani made his comments in the Knesset about drafting women to the Armored Corps.

While haredi rabbis and soldiers focus primarily on issues of modesty and the spiritual dangers of sexual attraction between male and female soldiers, the religious Zionist rabbis add the argument that women are fundamentally unfit for combat roles. If allowed to serve, women will weaken the IDF, they argue.

The IDF has become at one and the same time both more gender egalitarian and more accommodating 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. Sensitivity, patience and perseverance are essential to this endeavor.

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