‘Full Integration of Women Into IDF Would Be Good for Israel’s Security’

Lt. Col. (res.) Zeev Lehrer caused a storm this week by calling to curtail religiosity in IDF.

Merav Michaeli
Merav Michaeli
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Merav Michaeli
Merav Michaeli

In Wednesday's Haaretz, Amos Harel reported on a document written by the outgoing head of the Israel Defense Forces' Personnel Directorate, Avi Zamir. In it, Zamir called for stemming the army's rising tide of religious extremism, which is expressed to a large extent in excluding or otherwise discriminating against women. This trend was confirmed by a recent report by the chief of staff's advisor on women's affairs.

Four years ago, Lt. Col. (res. ) Zeev Lehrer served on a committee led by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yehuda Segev that discussed how to continue integrating women into the army and recommended adopting a model of complete equality of opportunity. In other words, women and men would contribute to the army according to their skills, capabilities and motivation rather than according to their sex.

Lehrer. “I don’t know if the army is purposely sacrificing women on the altar of religion, but I have no doubt that it is under great pressure to reduce or stop absorbing women.”Credit: Ilan Assayag

Based on what Zamir and the advisor on women's affairs said, it appears that the army is sacrificing women on the altar of the religious and the ultra-Orthodox.

"There is a clear, profound and wide-ranging process of what could be called 'religification' of the army. The issue of women plays a significant part in this. It's a symbol, and an extremely central theater of conflict. But it's only one part of it.

"The question is what kind of army is being created. There are profound processes that have been going on over a long time: segregation, and the growing influence of religious Zionism on the army. I don't know if the army is purposely sacrificing women on the altar of religion, but I have no doubt that it is under great pressure to reduce or stop the process of absorbing women, and the pressure comes from this direction."

And, according to the advisor on women's affairs and Zamir, the army is giving in to this pressure.

"It is not giving in deliberately, but it is built in such a way that its ability to decide controversial issues is nearly paralyzed, so grave developments are occuring on the ground."

What do you mean by "paralyzed"? If a battalion commander refuses to accept a woman as communications officer because he wears a skullcap and doesn't want to work with a woman, why don't his superiors deal with this?

"They deal with some cases. But they haven't succeeded in dealing with the overall issue, because great pressure is exerted, and the women's power is much much weaker than that of those they face. What the advisor on women's affairs is able to do is more or less a finger in the dike."

Women are represented only by the advisor on women's affairs?

"By and large, yes."

And who represents the religious?

"There are all kinds of lobbies that operate completely openly in the army. For example, there is a lobby headed by a rabbi named Yinon Farhi that has been active for several years now - part of the time under the hat of the administration for appropriate integration [of men and women], and afterward via other modes of action that wield great influence in the army. Each time an issue arises with regard to women - expanding women's integration or the advancement of women in the army - they come in and torpedo the process.

"The most obvious example occurred with regard to the Segev Committee, whose recommendations have been on the table for three years but have never become operative, and were never even adopted, explicitly due to the very strong influence of these lobbies. This sector of the population also has very strong political backing, and many institutions - yeshiva rabbis of all kinds, and rabbis of military yeshivas - with a foot in the door and a lot of influence."

And they all meddle in the army?

"Yes, whenever it comes to women, yes. And there is also the army rabbinate, which underwent a great change under Rabbi [Avichai] Rontzki. From being a body that took care of soldiers' religious needs, it became a body that tries to shape the religious character of the entire army."

That is, it tries to shape the army into a religious organization.

"More or less, yes. It isn't put this way, but there is a completely clear and open process involving fierce disagreements with the Education Corps, which is supposed to shape the soldiers' education and spirit, over the content, values, norms and ideologies to which soldiers are exposed during their army service. And here religious norms are given great weight in many ways. There is an internal struggle between the rabbinate and the Education Corps and I'm not certain about the balance of power."

Do you think the rabbinate is stronger than the Education Corps?

"It's a fact that they have a major say on what content, including educational and cultural content, soldiers are exposed to in the army, far out of proportion to what you would expect. People send their children to the army to fight, not to undergo religious brainwashing. The situation is starting to tilt in other directions."

Starting to tilt toward brainwashing?

"From what I know, it is beginning to approach this. The breadth and depth of the activities, the exposure of soldiers to religious ideology, religious life and a religious worldview - the balance was destroyed a long time ago. And it is not only the rabbinate, but also pressure from below about what kind of educational activities can take place.

"It is permissible to have soldiers get up and leave when women singers are brought in, or to have soldiers refuse to attend all kinds of lectures by all sorts of lecturers. There are commanders who decide in advance to avoid these pressures by bringing in some rabbinate troupe instead of a chamber group that has a woman in it. I know of commanders who send female education officers to consult with a rabbi about whether their activities are suitable for a particular unit or not."

How close are we to a situation in which following orders will be subject to a rabbi's permission?

"This power already exists and already exerts influence. For example, during the disengagement from Gaza, the army was forced to establish an alternative force of 40,000 people because the regular army units, the natural people to carry out the mission, did not want to cooperate with the evacuation. And while it wasn't out in the open and no one said it was because of the fear that religious soldiers would refuse to obey orders, de facto, this was the case.

"To me, this is a crisis of governance - a sign that these forces are already highly significant even if they are not out in the open and official."

And if someone were to decide to try to deal with this, is it still possible?

"In Israel's current political climate, it isn't possible. Given the army's decision-making structure, the considerations and the logic at work in decision making today, I don't think a chief of staff can arise who would want or be able to decide this issue, despite the fact that we are nearly at the red line on this matter.

"It's a crisis of governance. And this is exactly how it is expressed: a limitation on the army's ability to do things for its own benefit. Because there is no argument that the full integration of women would be good for the army and for Israel's security. There's no other issue here."

The current chief of staff, Benny Gantz, also appeared before the Segev Committee, and he was not in favor of your model.

"He was not in favor of integrating women into combat units."

So it is reasonable to assume that during his term of office, there is less chance of the committee's recommendations being adopted.

"It's hard for me to believe [it will happen]. Based on times when he has spoken about this matter, I don't think he'll get into this kind of controversy and I don't think he'll deal with it."



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