IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi approved the integration of women into combat roles in the Israeli Air Force’s elite 669 Special Rescue Unit, which opens up additional combat units to women. This decision is based on the recommendations of the team he set up around two years ago, headed by Major-General Yoel Strick, in the wake of petitions to the Supreme Court calling for women to be admitted to elite units in the IDF.
As with everything that has to do with women’s service in the IDF, this has also been the subject of a perfectly timed campaign, framing the issue as a struggle between extremist liberal women and Orthodox rabbis’ conservatism. The former are accused of being willing to sacrifice the country’s security at the altar of equality, and the latter want to remind the public (with a threatening wink of the eye) of the growing numbers of religious – Zionist men serving in the IDF’s officer ranks and frontline units.
Protests to women in combat
For example, Deputy Minister Matan Kahana warns that “the IDF must not become an army of tribes, concerned about a rift between the IDF and religious-Zionist rabbis, against the backdrop of a concerted effort to integrate women into combat roles.”
Indeed, some believe that in lieu of the Chief of Staff’s decision, trouble lies ahead. Women’s groups and those calling for full gender equality will protest the relatively conservative approach; on the other hand, with the decision to open up units that until now had been closed to women, he’ll be accused by religious-Zionist leadership (and their allies) of surrendering to the female progressives and of dealing a scandalous blow to the military and Israel’s security. There is no solution that will satisfy both sides.
Incidentally, this perspective is confirmed by public opinion data collected by the Israel Democracy Institute when the Strick team was appointed to examine the issue, which revealed that only half of all respondents believe that the team will focus solely on professional considerations, while the rest think that the team’s decision will be influenced by pressure from external players – women’s groups or rabbis.
But this is the heart of the matter. The question is not and must not be about this specific decision. According to Israeli law, all IDF units are to be open to women, except for those in which this is not possible “due to the character and substance of the role.” Therefore, the only question on which the team was supposed to decide was which units women cannot serve in solely due to the nature of the tasks involved, all other units should be open to them.
And even here, it should be noted that the law relates to the right of women candidates to serve, and thus the only decision to be made should concern the individual capabilities of individual candidates and not the capabilities of women in general or the capabilities of “the average woman.” Even deputy minister Kahana will not deny that there is a high probability that at least one young woman in Israel is capable of serving in the Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance unit.
Thus, the IDF needs to supply a convincing explanation for why it does not allow women who are capable of doing so to serve in that unit. There may well be a valid reason. It may be that, in terms of proportionality, the investment required would exceed a reasonable cost, relative to the number of women expected to meet the unit’s requirements. But as long as the IDF does not offer such an explanation, it is failing to follow the letter of the law.
The IDF is obligated to protect the dignity of all serving soldiers, both men and women, including religious soldiers bound by Jewish laws relating to sexual modesty and gender separation. This is precisely why the Joint Service Order was issued: to facilitate service in accordance with various halachic (Jewish law) requirements and even to enable those who demand it to serve in gender-separated units.
Once this order was given the rabbis’ blessing – and following the adoption of stricter norms than those applied in other public arenas – it is unacceptable that the question of whether women may serve in the Egoz commando unit should be met with the question of “how integrating women affects religious soldiers.” Dozens of articles warning of a rift between religious Zionism and the IDF because of this issue cannot change this basic fact. Under no circumstances can there be any justification for a female candidate to be told, “Though you have all the requisite capabilities to serve in a reconnaissance unit, we can’t allow you to do so, because otherwise religious soldiers will not apply for service in that unit.”
Recently, a broader public debate has emerged over the principle of equality and the need to enshrine it in legislation. It may take time for this to happen. However, even without a Basic Law, the right to equality remains one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. While it is not an absolute right and it must sometimes be balanced against other values, infringing it must only be a last resort.
“What is difficult, we do immediately. What is impossible takes a little longer,” runs a slogan used in various IDF units. The same ethos should be applied to the current challenge facing the Chief of General Staff. Any military that is able to carry out the operations that the IDF performs, should be able to ensure true gender equality in its ranks. It’s entirely possible and it’s the right thing to do.
The writer is the director of the Military and Society Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.