Will new gov’t set back progress of IDF women in combat units? - analysis

Half of the new government is made up of three to four political parties that either completely oppose women serving in the IDF or specifically oppose them serving in any combat units.

Women will soon be able to serve in the Israeli Air Force's elite  669 Search and Rescue Unit as well as the Yahalom combat engineering unit. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Women will soon be able to serve in the Israeli Air Force's elite 669 Search and Rescue Unit as well as the Yahalom combat engineering unit.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

For decades, and more intensely in the last few years, the battle for women to be able to serve in a wider range of units in the IDF, including combat units, has made more noise than ever before.

A petition to the High Court of Justice filed a few years ago heaped pressure on the IDF high command to open a few new combat units to women, including the Yahalom Combat Engineering Unit and mobile deployment units in the Infantry Corps in the summer, as well as the IAF’s 669 Search and Rescue Unit in October.

Some groups view this progress as inadequate. They note that there are other militaries where women serve in all elite combat units. Yet, there is no question that this recent trend in Israel has been focused on the integration of women into units that they previously could not serve in.

Might all of that be jeopardized by the incoming government?

Half of the new government is made up of three to four political parties that either completely oppose women serving in the IDF or specifically oppose them serving in any combat units.

 Women will soon be able to serve in the Israeli Air Force's elite  669 Search and Rescue Unit as well as the Yahalom combat engineering unit. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) Women will soon be able to serve in the Israeli Air Force's elite 669 Search and Rescue Unit as well as the Yahalom combat engineering unit. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

The Religious Zionist Party’s (RZP) current leadership has long opposed (unlike Bayit Yehudi and Yamina which had internal debates) women serving in combat units and also discourages religious women from serving in the army at all.

The numbers of religious Zionist women choosing to serve in the IDF over the national service route that is open to them has reached new highs in recent years.

But, this is the first time the RZP is in a coalition without more moderate voices on the issue – people like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

This week, a group of religious Zionist rabbis united under the “Torat Haaretz Hatovah” group put out a statement referencing a recent report by the state comptroller which exposed the awfully high percentages of women being sexually harassed across the army, police and prisons service.

They said that the state comptroller’s report proves that women – especially religious women – should not serve in the IDF.

Neemanei Torah Viavodah, a more liberal religious umbrella group of rabbis, dismissed the characterization of the comptroller’s report, drawing its own parallel to inside the community. Unfortunately, they wrote, a number of rabbis have been found guilty of sex crimes, but that no one calls for expelling women from the synagogue as the answer to that problem.

Further, they noted that there have also been sex crimes committed against young boys in single-sex environments, but that no one calls to close these institutions as a result.

Rather, they said, the solution lies in being diligent in preventing the attacks from occurring, as well as greater education and awareness regarding the sexual predator phenomenon.

Rising to power 

IN THE LAST government of Benjamin Netanyahu, or the outgoing government of Bennett and Yair Lapid, the voices of the Torat Haaretz Hatovah rabbis might have been just another of many voices, easily blown away by the wind of public debate on an endless number of issues.

Now they have sitting representatives in power.

The RZP, according to the latest portfolio breakup, will have a minister in the defense ministry, while Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir is slated to become national security minister, with power over Israel Police, Israel Prison Service and the Border Police.

If some of the RZP ministers go rogue and start making it even harder for women to serve in certain areas, will Netanyahu step in? Will the courts?

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On one hand, the courts have helped.

The IDF is a very slow moving organization and could have taken another 10 years to integrate more women into some of the combat units that it has opened in just two years.

On the other hand, at a hearing on December 8, the High Court justices seemed to toe the line with the IDF on blocking women from serving in Sayeret Matkal, an army commando unit that goes behind enemy lines; naval commandos Shayetet 13, the IAF’s Shaldag special forces unit, the IDF’s Commando Brigade and the Israel Navy’s Submarine Unit.

Although the petitioners noted that even the more liberal approach to women is to make them meet a double standard that men do not always need to meet in terms of height, weight and other criteria, the justices seemed satisfied to entangle the issue in procedural delays for several months or more.

The IDF itself commissioned a two-year study on the matter before deciding to integrate women into combat units.

This all means that the shift of women serving in more units in the IDF is very much a work in progress, which both the IDF and the courts have mixed feelings about.

Then, add in the element of a uniquely anti-women serving in the IDF government with some direct levers of authority over the issue, and the IDF backtracking on the issue is not an unrealistic scenario.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz made a move to continue negotiating for the return of Israelis being held prisoner by Hamas.

If the next time an IDF soldier is taken prisoner, it is a female soldier, might not the RZP and the government’s haredi parties jump on the issue to try to turn back the clock?

These parties seem likely to get their way on passing a new law to slow the integration of haredim into the IDF. Will Netanyahu fight over this kind of issue if giving in could help keep him in power?

The upcoming rollout and responses to women in some of the combat units which will be new for them will provide some hints about which direction this debate will go in.