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Ceremony marking the end of basic training of a Nahal Haredi battalion. Photo by Alex Levac
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As long as no rockets are slamming into Israel and the Palestinians are not dispatching suicide bombers, Israeli society can deal with sensitive subjects like cottage cheese, high rental prices, the doctors strike and religious influence in the public domain. Regarding the latter, the army is on the front line, both because of the majority’s fondness for the Israel Defense Forces and its prestige among the national-religious population. The recent episode of whether to cite God or the people of Israel in the Yizkor ‏memorial‏ prayer for fallen soldiers − now being investigated by a panel − was only a harbinger.

On June 23, outgoing IDF Personnel Directorate head Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir sent a farewell document to Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. The document, as reported in Haaretz on Wednesday, addressed all the issues Gantz’s predecessors had avoided. The bottom line was a call to curb the IDF’s growing religious radicalization, due to concerns that this will destroy the “people’s army” model.

Zamir’s document was preceded by a study conducted by Dr. Neri Horowitz for the chief of staff’s adviser for women, Brig. Gen. Gila Kalifi-Amir. The study warned that the directives relating to what’s called “appropriate integration,” drawn up by the IDF in 2003 to reduce friction between religiously observant male combat troops and female soldiers, were in fact restricting the role of women in the army. Horowitz and Kalifi-Amir wrote that strict application of the rules is excluding women and frequently making their service impossible, due to “extreme religious coercion.” In his document, Zamir, who for months blocked the circulation of the study commissioned by his subordinate Kalifi-Amir, effectively adopted most of her conclusions. Her report is expected to be circulated soon in the IDF.

Meanwhile, the IDF chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, who was supposed to be a calming influence after his hyperactive, controversial predecessor, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, is now waging a rearguard battle against her report and the Zamir document, with the backing of leading civilian rabbis.

According to the IDF journal Ma’arachot last year, the proportion of religiously observant cadets in infantry officers courses leaped from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2007.

Zamir provides a complimentary statistic: Between 1994 and 2009, the proportion of graduates of state-religious schools who are serving as majors in combat units rose from 6.9 percent to 20 percent. ‏(Meanwhile, the proportion of city-bred officers in those posts declined from 50 percent to 30 percent.‏) The increasing dependence on the religious sector, especially in light of the decreased motivation to serve in other sectors, obliged the army to make compromises to encourage religious young people’s motivation.

Both documents conclude the IDF went too far in acceding to the rabbis’ requests. And, implicitly, they raise another problem: The more the IDF excludes women from its center of activity, due to exacerbated problems of modesty, the more tension it will generate. Young people from “the state of Tel Aviv” will have another reason to evade army service.

Because religiously observant women, as opposed to their male counterparts, rarely do army service, the responsibility for certain tasks falls to young secular women. But they will be deterred from service by rigidly enforced regulations concerning modest dress.

The documents are filled with examples, and others are heard in conversations with IDF officers. For example, the top graduate of a Communications and Electronics Corps course requested a posting in a particular battalion ‏(a privilege accorded to outstanding graduates‏) − but was turned down because the battalion commander didn’t want women as staff officers. Female adjutancy officers encountered a similar attitude.

The number of training posts for female soldiers is decreasing, mainly because of complaints from religiously observant male soldiers. In some units, combat troops refused to accept female sharpshooting instructors. Proposals have been put forward to reconsider the proportion of female instructors for tank and artillery units. In the Intelligence Corps, cadets demanded that female instructors teach from behind tables. Soldiers from the hesder yeshivas − which combine religious studies with military service − protested the presence of female education and service-conditions noncoms in their battalions.

Zamir’s document also cites an opposite example: An artillery battalion commander insisted that his religiously observant soldiers take part in an R&R day at a swimming pool.

The soldiers showed up but didn’t participate. Women’s singing at ceremonies ‏(such as at a recent Yitzhak Rabin memorial event‏) remains a regular cause for clashes. In one infantry brigade, a training-base commander requested that no mixed entertainment troupes be sent to the base.

The Personnel Directorate torpedoed an initiative by the military rabbinate to restrict women’s role in placing floral wreaths during military funerals. For its part, the rabbinate sought a change in the definition of its role, seeking to describe it as “serving as a spiritual and moral source for all IDF soldiers.” That move, already approved at a low level in the Plans and Policy Directorate, was blocked by the Personnel Directorate. Furthermore, the Education Corps has received complaints because guides referenced Islam and Christianity during soldiers’ visits to Jerusalem. “A Jewish army doesn’t have to talk about other religions,” someone said.

A senior officer in the Personnel Directorate notes that “Jewish identity in the army is undergoing a sharp shift. In the past the approach was that Orthodox rules were observed in public and at home every soldier did whatever he wanted. Nowadays, the army is deciding for you what kind of Jew you will be: a national-religious Jew. The Education Corps is very weak in the face of the military rabbinate. The army’s original approaches are constantly being eroded.”

The “appropriate integration” order is not clearly written. Strict enforcement of it generates absurdities: a female soldier was confined to the base over the weekend for braiding another female soldier’s hair; another received the same punishment for embracing a female friend who was in distress at a firing range. In these cases the sensitivities of male soldiers were not affronted at all. Moreover, some of the female soldiers who were disciplined for such acts are themselves religiously observant.

Many young soldiers believe the myth that there is an IDF order mandating that a 40-centimeter distance be kept between the sexes. There are also moderate rabbis who warn that soldiers will start refusing to eat in messes where the cook is a Druze.

In a recent series of Haaretz articles, sociologist Yagil Levy, who has studied the IDF closely, argued that a “critical mass” of religiously observant soldiers in field units and at command levels has strengthened demands for shaping the army’s culture in the spirit of “thy camp shall be holy,” alongside unofficial arrangements in some units. Levy claims that senior officers are paralyzed when dealing with religiously volatile issues, and that the General Staff has resigned itself to the military rabbinate’s expanded role vis-a-vis the religious education of secular soldiers. The next stage is under way, he says: a rise in manifestations of “gray” refusal and politically motivated rebelliousness by soldiers, with the army afraid to confront them.

Levy also says: “The status of women in the IDF has been declining in recent years. The expansion of the ‘appropriate integration’ regime, its application to all men and women who serve together, rather than only to religious men, and its strict enforcement have led to the exclusion of women. In the discourse that has developed, women are portrayed as a modesty hazard whose damage must be minimized.”

Meanwhile, Zamir’s recent warnings were received critically by the General Staff. “This document is written from a commander’s viewpoint,” senior officers told Haaretz. “Where was Zamir for the last four years? ... A large part of what Zamir describes was under his immediate responsibility. Why didn’t he take action? What’s the point of submitting a document like this one minute before he leaves?”

Other officers think the army has become a battlefield for “external” players, to its detriment. “What the secular public doesn’t understand is that religious Zionism is not monolithic but a collection of sects and tribes,” says a religiously observant officer. “Some of them are using modesty in the IDF as a pawn against other rabbis. Some of the problems are imaginary; rabbis inflate them for their needs and the army takes fright. When you ask religious soldiers in the field, you find there are other things that bother them, and women’s modesty is not necessarily at the top of the list. The General Staff needs to take a smart approach. This story has just begun.”

Temporary quiet

Gantz already has his hands full, including preparing for a potential crisis with the Palestinians in September and drawing up the IDF’s next five-year plan. In between, the IDF this week dealt handily with the remnant of the Gaza flotilla, which began as an organized mass action but ended feebly, in the form of a small yacht that was easily overcome by naval commandos.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak heaped praises on the chief of staff − Barak’s press statement inexplicably omitted the fact that he himself is once more on holiday abroad − but Gantz knows that more significant tests are yet to come. His predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, left behind the issue of the Boaz Harpaz document, which continues to grow increasingly tangled.

But for now, the General Staff is occupied with the Yizkor committee and the modesty rules. Officers who served in the IDF in 2006, on the eve of the Second Lebanon War, recalled the important appointment that a division commander received a few weeks before his division failed in a key battle. The chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, placed him in charge of a special committee that devoted hours and days to the question of whether soldiers should have to wear berets again.