Security and Defense: Marching out of tune

Question of soldiers listening to women singing arises amid claims military undergoing radicalization.

Religious IDF soldier 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Religious IDF soldier 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
In 1980, the Mizrachi Movement convened in Jerusalem for its annual conference. Attendees heard lectures by prominent rabbinic figures from Israel and the Diaspora. On the last day of the conference, they had a special treat – a performance by an all-girls choir.
One rabbi, a known scholar from the United States, turned to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the former chief rabbi of Israel and of the Israel Defense Forces, and asked how he had allowed the girls’ choir to perform at the conference. “These are kosher girls,” Goren reportedly replied.
t is no longer 1980, but the question of shirat nashim – women’s singing – is today one of the most hotly contested issues in the IDF and is stirring controversy amid claims that the military is undergoing a religious radicalization.
On the surface, the issue is quite simple. Like any military, the IDF holds regular ceremonies – from the graduation of a cadets course at the Bahad 1 Officers Training School to a memorial service for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In recent months though there has been an upsurge in cases of soldiers who have walked out of ceremonies after female singers took to the stage.
In similar incidents, soldiers from one infantry brigade left a unit vacation at a resort near Ashkelon because female soldiers were also vacationing there.
In the Artillery Corps, a battalion commander transferred two female instructors to another unit because a haredi company was being established in his unit.
In other units, religious soldiers have refused to train with female fitness instructors.
Shirat nashim is not the real issue at hand, but is instead being used as a springboard to debate the current social makeup of the IDF and whether it is becoming too religious and a halachically run military.
In addition, it seems that the presence of religious soldiers in the IDF is not the cause of concern – religious soldiers have served in the military proudly and prominently since the state was established – but rather the feeling that the rights of secular and female soldiers are being set aside in favor of their religious comrades.
On the surface, there is no question that the rise of the numbers of religious soldiers in today’s IDF has drawn changes. Take a look at the Golani Brigade, the most-popular infantry brigade in the military as an example.
The commander of the brigade is religious, as are six of the seven lieutenant-colonels. In the Paratroopers Brigade the situation is the opposite except that all of the deputy battalion commanders are religious and they are next in line to become commanders of the battalions. In all of the infantry brigades, the pool of medium-level officers – company and platoon commanders – is predominantly religious, a direct result of Bahad 1 graduating classes that are between 30 and 40 percent religious.
The establishment of new programs for haredim – in the Israel Air Force, Military Intelligence and C4I Directorate – in addition to the continued growth of the Nahal Haredi battalion, reinforces the argument by those who claim that the IDF is more religious today than ever.
There are currently about 2,500 haredim serving in male-only units in the IDF, raising into question the whole issue of “proper integration”– the term used to describe the continued integration of female soldiers into the military – particularly when these soldiers refuse to serve with women.
If kibbutznikim were filling officer ranks in the IDF just 20 years ago, they no longer are and have instead been replaced by the religious. According to the latest studies conducted by the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, the highest motivation to serve in combat units comes from youth originating in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“This is the sector today that is sending its children to serve in combat units and they have rights as well,” a former head of the Manpower Directorate said. “If someone has a problem with this, they can send their children instead.”
The debate over shirat nashim is welldocumented in Jewish law, but many rabbis claim that once inside a ceremony, a soldier should sit in his seat rather than walk out. If he feels uncomfortable, the soldier can lower his eyes and, in extreme circumstances, insert earplugs.
Radical statements by rabbis like Elyakim Levanon that it is preferable to be shot and killed than to hear a woman sing are dangerous not because a soldier might actually take them at face value but rather due to the impact they can potentially have on an already delicate social fabric between the religious and secular in the IDF.
One could question why the government doesn’t suspend funding to the Elon Moreh hesder yeshiva led by Levanon, who is known for his radical views such as when he called on soldiers to refuse orders to participate in the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
On the the flip side of this rift comes the letter published last week in Haaretz, signed by 19 former IDF major-generals warning against giving in to religious demands.
The debate has led to questions regarding the allegiance of religious soldiers and whose voice they heed – their commander’s or their rabbi’s – when it comes to social and religious issues.
Some officers in the IDF, even religious ones, believe that there is a need for Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz to get involved in the issue and to do more than just declare that he is concerned with the social changes in the IDF. Almost a year into his term, Gantz has not yet really gotten his hands dirty. He might need to.
The same is the case with OC Manpower Directorate Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbavai, who Gantz appointed months ago to recommend what should be done about integrating religious and female soldiers together and who has yet to do so.
Barbavai has stood up for the right of female soldiers to continue singing at IDF ceremonies, but she might be misunderstanding the real problem. A few weeks ago, IDF top brass convened for a two-day conference to review the military’s requirements over the coming years and to hear from brigade and division commanders about their operational experience.
Barbavai later said that she was impressed to hear from one brigade commander deployed along the Gaza border – who happened to be religious – that conducting operations on Shabbat was a trivial matter for him. She seemed not to realize that combat operations on Shabbat have never really been an issue for religious soldiers, since according to the Torah life-or-death matters come before the observance of Shabbat, and that this is irrelevant to the current debate within the military.
Then there is IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, who was appointed in 2010 due to his moderate and compromising character but has not stood up to rabbis like Levanon and others whose influence is growing within the IDF.
“By dragging their feet and not clarifying the issue, Gantz is doing an injustice to the entire IDF and particularly to religious soldiers,” one former member of the General Staff said.
Barbavai has said that she is inclined to rule that soldiers need to remain in certain ceremonies but that she will leave room for consideration to the unit commanders.
It is not clear if this is the right move, since without an across-the-board ruling, the issue will not be put to rest and threatens to advance the already growing rift within the IDF and within Israeli society.