women soldiers celebrating Simhat Torah- Eliyahu Hershkowitz - 25102011
Female soldiers celebrating the Simhat Torah Holy Day. 42.6 percent of young Jewish women do not serve at all, mostly because they say they are religious. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz
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The hundreds of women soldiers who angrily left Simhat Torah celebrations in the south after they were made to crowd into a small area away from male celebrants are the latest victims of a worrisome trend toward ultra-Orthodoxy in the Israel Defense Forces. There had already been incidents where male soldiers refused to serve under female instructors and officers, and women have been segregated at a training school's swimming pool. Another time, officer candidates left a ceremony because women were singing.

During the IDF's main Sukkot holiday event, organized under the banner "we build the people's army in a spirit of unity," women were segregated in an offensive way, as though this were a remote ultra-Orthodox social hall and not an official army event held with civilian participation in the area of the Eshkol Regional Council. This was incredibly insulting. Many of the participants were not religious, and apart from those who enforced the wrongheaded segregation policy, the religious celebrants were also taken aback.

Apparently a few religious extremists were not satisfied that the women were dancing separately and took the initiative to move them to a separate area. Yet senior officers in the Gaza division, including Brig. Gen. Yossi Bachar and IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz, stood idly by and did not intervene on the women soldiers' behalf. How can it be that a few extremists who seek to turn Jewish law into an instrument of crude segregation can lead two top IDF officers by the nose? Or do these officers disavow responsibility when it comes to actions offensive to women soldiers?

The trend toward ultra-Orthodox extremism that has been gripping religious soldiers takes on a particularly fanatic cast when it applies to women. In recent years the IDF has created unprecedented opportunities for female soldiers, and women soldiers are now promoted in elite units and combat roles based on their abilities. But aggressive religious isolationism belies these new realities and undermines the status of women soldiers who serve in all roles in the IDF.

This is a dangerous trend that distorts the army's character and causes revulsion among most Israelis. It behooves Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to take steps to stifle this trend before it's too late.