Women’s battle

Religious sensibilities and female aspirations can live side-by-side, provided there is goodwill, mutual respect and the taming of religious fanaticism.

Woman Soldier 521 (photo credit: IDF)
Woman Soldier 521
(photo credit: IDF)
Gender segregation in the IDF appears to be preoccupying our highest military echelon. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Benny Gantz and another high-ranking commander – unaware they were being taped – swapped some quips, later interpreted by some as smacking of sexism, about whether female soldiers could sing during military duty.
The men were joking about an ongoing controversy surrounding some religious soldiers’ refusal to listen to female soldiers who sing during military ceremonies.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton surprised many here when in closed forums last weekend she compared incidents of gender discrimination against our female soldiers to the situation in ayatollah-ruled Iran.
Obviously, Clinton went overboard when she compared religious-inspired attitudes in the IDF toward female soldiers with our much more devout – not to mention misogynic – Iranian neighbors. But the secretary of state, nevertheless, put her finger on a real problem: obstacles to integration and advancement of women in the IDF due to religious extremism and prurience – such as viewing a woman’s singing voice as an irresistible sexual attraction.
Never before has the IDF been so dependent on religious soldiers. Crocheted kippa-wearing soldiers now make up a third of all cadets in officers’ training courses and 20 percent of all majors in combat units are graduates of religious high schools.
In parallel, feminists calling for a more egalitarian role for women have been making inroads as well. In 1995, Alice Miller successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to open pilots’ training courses to women. In 2000, the Security Service Law was amended to ensure equal opportunity for women in the IDF. In 2003, women who volunteered for combat positions were required to serve three years like men. Manpower shortfalls – in part due to the growing number of 18-year-old men who opted to indefinitely postpone military service so they could study Torah – created an incentive for the integration of women into combat units.
By 2005, positions in the IDF open to women rose to 88% from just 56% in the 1980s. In 2007, a committee headed by former head of the army’s Manpower Directorate, Yehuda Segev, recommended placement of soldiers based solely on capabilities, regardless of gender.
But in the square-off between feminists and rabbis, one side has a clear advantage.
Religious soldiers enjoy the backing of a vast educational empire, which includes hesder yeshivot, mechinot (pre-military religious academies) and yeshiva high schools. Educators in these institutions, who actively employ Jewish texts, history and tours of the Land of Israel to inculcate their students with a strong desire to perform combat duty, have formed close ties with high-ranking IDF commanders, some of whom are themselves yeshiva or mechina graduates.
Wary of offending the religious sensibilities of the rabbis and potentially endangering a steady supply of a highly motivated group of soldiers, many generals, who are already predisposed to male chauvinism, have shown a willingness to accommodate religious demands, even if by doing so they restrict the advancement of women in the IDF.
Women, in contrast, do not enjoy such an impressive lobbying mechanism. They are split by internal disputes. More radical feminists oppose the whole concept of military service, which they see as an incorrigibly male-dominated institution.
Most religious women opt for National Service instead of the IDF.
And the idea of integrating women into combat units is controversial. Books such as 1997’s Women in the Military: Flirting With Disaster or 2007’s Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars make convincing arguments based on purely utilitarian grounds.
But while women are at a clear disadvantage in the IDF’s battled of the sexes, attempts should be made to find a middle ground. Integration of women in diverse and challenging IDF positions – not necessarily frontline combat positions – could lead to more gender equality in civilian life.
Skills learned in the IDF are readily transferable to the labor market. Women who excel as officers or in other roles that demand responsibility, commitment and interpersonal skills often go on to serve in high-ranking managerial positions after their army stint is finished. Friendships and social connections formed in the army are often invaluable later on.
The standoff between women and religious men in the IDF should not be seen as a zero sum game. Religious sensibilities and female aspirations can live side-by-side, provided there is goodwill, mutual respect and the taming of religious fanaticism.