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
Text size

The most disappointing response to the fact that 100 female soldiers were instructed to sit in a separate section during the traditional celebrations at the end of the Simhat Torah holiday last week at an Israel Defense Forces base came perhaps from a secular officer. "What's the problem? They set up a separate place for them to dance," he said.

What do you think about the state of democracy in Israel? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter (#israeldemocracy).

Even worse was the off-the-cuff remark of another officer, also secular, who said: "That's customary; it's what they did last year, too."

Well, that is customary - in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim and in the settlements of the ultra-Orthdox nationalists. But for decades, the Bnei Akiva Orthodox youth movement held these celebrations, known as the Hakafot Shniyot, in the central squares of the cities at the end of the holiday, with the circles of boys and girls dancing - not together, but alongside each other.

It turns out that in the clash of the Titans that has been going on here for years over the soul of the national religious public, between the ultra-Orthodox nationalist separatists and those who still view Israeli unity as a sacred value, at least one battle has already been decided. Six weeks have gone by since four cadets were expelled from officer training school after refusing to take part in an evening on battlefield heritage at which a female singer appeared; but the chief of staff has yet to publish clear directives on how to deal with such a situation in the future. The delay stems from the fear the IDF brass have of facing off against the rabbis, to whom many soldiers and officers ostensibly listen.

The rabbis terrify the generals, but if a poll were to be taken among Orthodox soldiers, it would likely reveal that the latter have no problem maintaining their lifestyle and no need or desire for rabbis to intervene. A cue to the possible results of such a survey could be had from the incident at Officer Training School, in which 75 percent of the Orthodox cadets remained in their seats, and among those who walked out when the singer took to the stage, most obeyed the order of the battalion commander to return to their places.

The events of five and a half years ago were a significant test. Many rabbis instructed soldiers to disobey orders and not to take part in the disengagement from Gaza. Was there a wave of disobedience after the ruling was issued? Only a handful of soldiers and a single officer chose to obey it.

The fear of the IDF's commanders to come out strongly against the rabbis only empowers the rabbis. How ironic it is that such capitulation comes of all times during the term of IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who was raised in Kfar Ahim, a moshav that belonged to the Oved Hadati movement, one of the most moderate branches of religious Zionism.

The IDF chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, toed a moderate line in his civilian days. He forbade his students in the Atzmona pre-army preparatory course in Gush Katif from opposing the disengagement in any way and led them out of the region.

Rabbi Peretz, in his personality and his views, is indeed very different from his predecessor, Avihai Ronski, the Talmudic "priest annointed for war." Just last week, after the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, Ronski recommended that IDF soldiers commit war crimes and murder terror suspects in their beds. But Peretz also went mute in the face of the most extreme rabbis.

The height of the hypocrisy came when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger told Gantz that the religious soldiers should be allowed to leave events where women are singing. But he himself said in an interview that under such circumstances at state events, he "reads a chapter of Psalms" as a distraction.

If this is a clear religious ruling, it should apply equally to the chief rabbi and a soldier. But since this is interpretation at most, there is no reason that in the IDF both women and the intelligence of the Orthodox soldiers should be insulted.

The face of the IDF is the face of changing Israeli society. It is unclear why its commanders chose to emulate rabbis who want to turn the IDF into the army of the Lord.