Maximalist positions perpetuate an IDF conflict

A minor incident metastasized when religious and secular ignored the other’s needs & fears.

Female IDF soldiers at western wall (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Female IDF soldiers at western wall
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Some years ago, at the height of the second intifada, religious soldiers were ordered aboard a bus on Shabbat and sent to dismantle an illegal outpost. The soldiers obeyed, but afterward, they protested vociferously. The response was immediate: The prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff all apologized, stating unequivocally that the order had been wrong, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. Army regulations allow soldiers to be asked to violate Shabbat only for essential military operations, and dismantling an outpost doesn’t qualify.
This story exemplifies what has been so sorely missing in the current battle over “religion versus women” in the Israel Defense Forces: a willingness on both sides to acknowledge that the other’s position has some validity. The soldiers in the outpost incident understood that they weren’t entitled to pick and choose which orders to obey, though they could seek to prevent a recurrence of orders they deemed problematic. The army brass and their civilian superiors understood that they weren’t entitled to abuse their coercive power by gratuitously violating soldiers’ religious beliefs.
Compare this to the September incident that started the current battle, in which nine cadets in an officers’ course disobeyed a direct order by walking out of an event featuring women vocalists. Five later apologized and promised not to repeat the offense; four refused to do so and were expelled from the course. But what should have been a minor incident that blew over as quickly as that Shabbat outpost demolition instead metastasized, because both sides entrenched themselves in maximalist positions. Rabbis insisted that soldiers should never have to listen to women singing, since some (though not all) rabbinic authorities deem this religiously prohibited, and that soldiers are entitled to disobey orders that violate their religious conscience. Army officers and politicians insisted that women must never be “excluded” from the army, and the IDF is therefore entitled to force religious soldiers to listen to female vocalists, regardless of how irrelevant this is to the army’s core military mission.
There was no appreciation on the religious side of how threatening this incident appeared to secular Israelis, for whom women’s equality, and freedom from religious coercion, are of cardinal importance. In contrast to the Shabbat outpost demolition, here, it was the religious soldiers who violated the status quo: Women singers have always performed in the IDF, and for decades, religious soldiers never objected; what changed is that sections of the religious Zionist community have begun adopting certain religious stringencies formerly confined to the ultra-Orthodox. And that is precisely what made it threatening to secular Israelis: If religious Zionist soldiers are now demanding the end of a decades-old religious status quo on this issue, what additional imported ultra-Orthodox norms might they seek to impose on the army, and on society as a whole? Will religious soldiers also start demanding, for instance, that women be excluded from the growing range of essential military positions (radar operators, weapons instructors, etc.) that they now fill?
Yet there was also no appreciation on the secular side of how threatening this incident appeared to religious Israelis: The army’s coercive powers were being exploited not for legitimate military needs, but to force religious soldiers to conform to secular norms. The event these cadets walked out of was a seminar on the 2009 Gaza war, consisting mainly of professional lectures on various aspects of the fighting. What conceivable need was there to cap it with a vocal performance that had nothing to do with the professional subject matter and was bound to offend the religious sensibilities of many cadets, given that 42 percent of the course’s participants were religious? Upholding this as a legitimate use of the army’s power merely feeds ultra-Orthodox conspiracy theories about the IDF being a tool to separate soldiers from religion, which religious men should therefore shun.
Anyone who even tried to propose a compromise was laughed at. Ultra-Orthodox MK Nissim Ze’ev, for instance, pointed out that religious soldiers could observe the prohibition against listening to women sing without either stalking out of ceremonies or demanding that such performances be abolished, simply by putting in earplugs when the singing began. But both sides heaped scorn on that idea; they wanted total victory, not a way to paper over the tensions. Secular politicians demanded that religious soldiers be forced to listen to female vocalists, even if that violates their religious beliefs. Rabbis demanded that soldiers be excused from any event featuring women performers, even though excusing some soldiers from events that are mandatory for others would undermine unit cohesion, or else that women not perform at all, even if this made secular Israelis feel excluded.
Consequently, the conflict escalated. The army issued explicit orders requiring soldiers to attend certain events featuring female vocalists; a leading religious Zionist rabbi declared that soldiers should face a firing squad rather than obey; the rabbi of a highly successful program to recruit ultra-Orthodox soldiers resigned, sending shock waves through the program; and so on.
Since neither religious nor secular Israelis are likely to disappear anytime soon, it’s essential that they learn to compromise on issues vital to the country’s survival, like maintaining an army in which both communities can serve. The army clearly plays a vital role in saving Jewish lives, and it can’t currently do without either religious or secular soldiers. Thus given the religious principle that pikuakh nefesh (saving a life) trumps most other religious precepts, I agree with Rabbi Mosheh Lichenstein’s view that the army is a place where maximalist religious positions don’t belong; instead, “any legitimate leniency” in Jewish law should be applied. Nevertheless, those “legitimate leniencies” aren’t infinite; if religious Jews are to feel comfortable serving in the Jewish state’s army, maximalist secular positions are equally untenable.
But any workable compromise starts with recognizing that the other side also has legitimate needs and fears. The tragedy is that there has been far too little of that recognition on either side of the current battle over religion in the IDF. As a consequence, what should have been a minor incident has become a conflict that refuses to die.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.