A Quiet Coup: Young Religious Women Are Flocking to the Israeli Army

The IDF's newest and enthusiastic recruiting pool are sidestepping religious edicts and go on to foment a wider revolution in religious society even after they've put away their uniforms.

An archive photo of female IDF soldiers.
Nir Kafri

Sometimes architecture tells the whole story. The synagogue at the Israel Defense Forces’ Officers Training School is an acclaimed architectural work. Built in 2009 and inspired by the biblical story of the burning bush, its women’s section is an elevated gallery of the type found in many old-style synagogues in Israel and elsewhere. But the architect, Eli Armon, didn’t take into account that there would be so many female cadets at the base, referred to as Bahad 1 and located near Mitzpeh Ramon in the south, or that so many would attend services there so regularly. Female officers who have completed their training in recent years say that on Shabbat they can barely squeeze in and often have to pray in two shifts.

Far from the headlines, and outside public discussion about the “religionizing” of the IDF, one of the most amazing and surprising stories concerning the people’s army in this decade is unfolding, embodied by the women of the military. Year after year, the number of religiously observant women who enlist – although they are not obliged to serve by law – is breaking records. From 2010 to 2014, the number of female graduates of the state-religious school system who have been inducted has doubled: from 935 five years ago, to 1,830 last year. According to estimates, this constitutes one-quarter of the total number of such graduates. Still, though unprecedented and under-the-radar, this phenomenon should not come as a surprise to officials in the school system or in the army units that have been tracking the trend for years.

All this is the background to an embarrassing event that occurred last Memorial Day at the Tzfira ulpana (religious high school for girls), a veteran, traditional institution near Rishon Letzion. Three graduates, now soldiers in regular service, who came especially from their units to attend the ceremony held that day were asked to leave. They say that the principal branded them “failures” – he consistently urges the girls to volunteer for National Service (a community-oriented alternative to military service) and to wear skirts. The three soldiers violated both norms.

The event was widely interpreted in the secular media as another sign of religious extremism, with the focus on the principal and the teachers who unceremoniously expelled the soldiers. But that misses the point: The extreme act of sending them away was actually precipitated by the fact that more and more young religious women are ignoring the path that has been marked out for them. Rabbis and more veteran educators in the national-religious community are helpless in the face of this powerful thrust.

Tzfira was well represented at a gathering for religious high-school seniors organized by the IDF a few months before the Memorial Day event. But those who went did so in defiance of the school administration, which did not allow them time off to attend the event and in general does not allow representatives of Aluma – an organization that, among other things, helps religiously observant girls find suitable army assignments, in cooperation with the IDF National Induction Center – to set foot within the ulpana.

Nir Kafri

The army, for its part, is showing flexibility in an effort to meet the religious girls halfway. Haaretz has learned that for the past two years the sole mission of a female officer, with the rank of major, in Military Intelligence, has been to locate potential candidates in religious high schools, encourage them to enlist and see to their welfare during their service. In the past year, MI set aside about 200 slots for such young women in Unit 8200, its vaunted signal intelligence division, other units, including field intelligence, Mamram (Center of Computers and Information Systems), and pilot training courses also undertook similar recruitment efforts.

The IDF is investing substantial resources in trying to convince graduates of girls’ religious high schools to sign up. Besides offering select tracks, it is attempting to adapt itself to the inductees’ needs. Between 2013 and 2015, there was a 71-percent increase in the number of religious female soldiers in the combat echelons, and a 30-percent rise in the number of religious female officers in the regular army. Whereas in 2013 these young women came from 213 schools, with different religious and social approaches, in 2014 graduates from 289 such institutions opted for army service – an increase of almost 36 percent in one year.

“For the army, it’s a win-win situation,” says Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, the chief of staff’s adviser on women’s affairs. “These are girls who choose to serve in the army – that is a central fact. They have no motivation problem, and they strive for excellence.” Tevet-Wiesel is making efforts to improve conditions for religious female soldiers in cooperation with Aluma and the Military Rabbinate. The latter has appointed a female officer with the rank of captain whose responsibility is to see to the needs of these soldiers throughout their military service. Among other things, the officer organizes lessons and lectures on religious subjects in the units in which these women serve.

The urge to sign up

In the past, young women from religious kibbutzim and observant communities – in Jerusalem, for example – would enlist in the army, but virtually the only option for them was service as soldier-teachers within the National Service framework. Now the backgrounds of the enlistees is also changing. Graduates of the leading national-religious ulpanot are signing up.

Moti Milrod

“These exceptional women used to do civilian service, and the less religiously observant and strict ones performed army service. Now it’s exactly the opposite,” says Rabbi Binyamin Lau, one of the few rabbis who has publicly declared support for women’s military service; his daughter is a company commander in a course that assists soldiers seeking to convert to Judaism.

Other liberal rabbis who have supported women’s service in the IDF over the years include Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who runs a pre-army course for new recruits, Rabbi Meir Nehorai and rabbis affiliated with the Beit Hillel organization (a liberal Orthodox group) – but they constitute a very small minority among rabbinic circles.In fact, some leading rabbis have issued rulings, based on halakha (traditional religious law), forbidding women to serve in the armed forces. The best known of these is the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, who last year also put this issue on the agenda of the Chief Rabbinate Council, of which he is a member. A fascinating discussion ensued, which clearly showed the rabbis’ quandary and ended with a new ruling, in January 2014, to the effect that “the Chief Rabbinate Council prohibits the drafting of girls to the IDF in any form and continues to uphold the halakhic tradition of all the former chief rabbis and members of the Chief Rabbinate Council across the generations who prohibited this.”

The minutes of that meeting are replete with strongly worded comments by both Zionist and ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) rabbis. For example, the chief rabbi of Be’er Sheva, Yehuda Dery, who is Haredi, asserted that religious girls must “under no circumstances” serve in the army (he used a Hebrew phrase implying that death is preferable to committing that “sin”).

The religious establishment in Israel has always feared that army service would lead to secularization among male soldiers, and even more so among women – an image the IDF deserved. But times have changed. As with Haredi men who sign up, as Tevet-Wiesel explains, the army is making great efforts to ensure that the religious recruits are able to observe the precepts rigorously, and the efforts are apparently paying off.

Meanwhile, the rabbis who reject women’s service are waging a complex publicity campaign, in which they are forced to contend with the results of a survey, conducted by Aluma several years ago, that have been disseminated among religious girls of draft age. According to the data, 86 percent of such individuals who served in the IDF continued to maintain the same level of religious observance as before they enlisted, or were even “strengthened” during their service. That is said to be a higher percentage than among religious male recruits.

The survey’s apparent effectiveness in recruiting women prompted Safed rabbi Eliyahu to suggest, at the Chief Rabbinate Council meeting, “There is a tool that could be of great help to us, but it demands funds from the Chief Rabbinate. I am referring to underwriting a survey to ascertain whether the presentation made to the girls – showing that they are strengthened religiously – is correct. After all, that is what attracts them [to enlist].” He added: “This is a well-planned operation, which in my opinion constitutes part of the erasure of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”

In the wake of the data, Rabbi Eliyahu explained to Haaretz that, “[The girls’ desire to serve] is not motivated by rebellion, but by a desire to contribute.” Accordingly, “just as an arrangement was made for boys [hesder yeshivas, combining religious studies with military service], the girls, too, with the participation of religious educators, need a framework that will make it possible for them to contribute more meaningfully. For example, a sort of national service for girls in the Intelligence Corps – not under the auspices of the army, but rather through [the institution of] National Service.”

Unlike other revolutions taking place in among women in the Orthodox world, most of the new recruits do not consider themselves to be feminists or feel that they are part of a rebellion. Hundreds of female students at state-religious schools who approach Aluma – as well as those who were interviewed for this article – say that above all else, they are driven to enlist by a powerful wish to contribute to Israeli society. Yet this phenomenon can be seen as part of a social revolution that, in two senses at least, is closely bound up with recent developments involving Orthodox activism and privatization of religious institutions: first, in terms of the meteoric rise in the power of women; and second, in regard to the erosion of the authority of the country’s conservative rabbinical establishment.

“The army is gradually becoming an ulpana,” says Ilay Ofran, the chief rabbi of Kvutzat Yavneh, who teaches in Tzahali, a pre-army preparatory course for religious girls. “The 'good girls' are going to the army, and that cuts across different groups in the religious Zionist movement. One of the allegations made by Rabbi Eliyahu is that the army ruins these young women [from a religious aspect], but now the truth has come out: Whereas National Service has not undergone an overhaul or become a more efficient organization, it’s the army that is constantly improving itself.”

Skirting the problem

Last November, a gathering for religious female high-school seniors was held in Soldier’s House in Tel Aviv, featuring representatives of various IDF units seeking recruits. Those represented included field intelligence, pilot training, the Education Corps and the Teleprocessing Corps. Some 1,400 young women attended the standing-room-only event, 500 more than in the previous year; the organizers were surprised but pleased. Many of the attendees came from ulpanot from which army representatives are banned, and they skipped classes in order to attend.

One of the high points of the event was a talk by Yifat Ariel, the mother of the first female air force navigator, Capt. Tamar Ariel, who was one of three Israelis killed in an avalanche in Nepal in October 2014. Overnight, Ariel had become a symbol for religious girls. Her name was added officially to the name of the Tzahali preparatory course; moreover, a prestigious prize-giving project and a gathering organized by Aluma now bears the name “Tamar’s Wings.” That gathering was held last week in Herzliya.

Tevet-Wiesel, the chief of staff’s adviser, notes that among the many complex decisions related to recruitment of religious girls – such as the code of behavior and joint service with men – she recently decided to introduce in the IDF, for the first time, a field uniform skirt for women serving in non-combat units (women in combat units wear pants). Earlier, when she noticed the growing number of head coverings worn by married soldiers and officers in various units, she issued “an order which wasn’t well liked by the religious women: A head covering for a married woman can be black, gray, blue or green, in any form you want, but only one of those colors. Otherwise it starts to look like a circus.”

The adviser handles a variety of matters relating to religious issues. She has allowed dayanim (religious-court judges) who engage in conversion to Judaism to work with women undergoing that process within the army framework in much the same way that the state-run conversion court judges do: for example, to observe the women during their ritual immersion, but clothed. This latter point is a controversial halakhic issue in any context. However, according to Tevet-Wiesel, “The army will not be at the forefront of a process that will change the laws of conversion for women who do army service. That is something we cannot do. In some matters we will always toe the line with state-run Orthodoxy.”

Within religious society, there has been an attempt in recent years to connect the army to another type of religiosity and a different type of feminism. For its part, the Tzahali pre-army program for religious girls, which takes place at the religious moshav Mesuot Yitzhak, near Ashkelon, is geared to new high-school graduates who intend to serve in the army but want to further their religious studies before being inducted. This is a developing trend, which also encompasses increasing numbers of midrashot (colleges of Jewish studies for women). But still, Tzahali is associated with what many see as the feminist wing of the religious Zionist movement, and as such is perceived as provocative by religious leaders who reject military service for women.

Shira-Mazal Peretz, a graduate of the Tzahali program, served as a commander of new recruits..

Speaking from her home in Afula, she says that, when she was growing up, “to do army service was dishonorable, a stigma. These days people say, ‘She has dared [to serve], she has courage, and she was even strengthened religiously.’”

When Peretz was a high-school senior, all the rabbis she met, whether in her hometown community or at the ulpana she attended, said that army service was forbidden. “But I admired Maj. Eliraz Peretz – I saw him as a model of contributing to the state,” Peretz says, referring to an Orthodox officer (no relation to her) in the Golani Brigade, who was killed in action in 2010. “I approached a rabbi , I told him how much I wanted to serve, and he said, ‘It seems that you should enlist, that this is your mission.’”

The head of Tzahali is Michal Nagen. Nagen, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Otniel, is the daughter of Uriel Simon, a professor of biblical studies associated with religious left-wing circles, and is herself married to a rabbi. For Nagen, a member of the Beit Hillel organization, everything is intertwined: army and feminism, Gemara and halakha, religious leadership, interfaith dialogue – everything. But there seems to be a disparity between Nagen’s view of army service as the forward-looking bastion of religious feminism, and the story told by the young female recruits themselves, which is largely apolitical. There is no conscious feminism in their approach; if feminism exists it is undeclared and unstated, and yet it still intrinsically conveys a completely new message to young religious women.

“For the religious girls, entering the army is a Zionist act,” Nagen explains. “There is also a feminist element, because we as a society place our sons at the head of the camp – they are the cultural heroes. Well, you can’t educate the boys in the house to run ahead and bear the nation on their shoulders, and tell the girls to stand still. This notion has already entered their feminism and is connected to their inner religious identity. They say, ‘Hold on. I will not cease being religiously observant.’”

It follows, she continues, that “the cutting edge of religious feminism is Tzahali, from every aspect. We dared to go one step forward and have told the girls, ‘You will not be recruited as a separate group’ – in other words, you will enter the battalions and serve throughout the army’s units, not only in protected places. And each of you, as a soldier woman, is an emissary at the head of the camp. Stay there and be religious. Be a dossit” – slang for a religious female Jew, used here with self-irony.

“And the rabbis ask me from all over place, ‘What, are these women really dossiyot?’ And I tell them, ‘Most definitely! That is the revolution!’ It used to be easy to say ‘no’ to us, because it was the less religiously strict girls who entered the IDF. No longer. Things have changed. The most pious girls are doing army service and generating change. You were in the army,” Nagen says to me, “and you know the army has no respect for women. We need aware women there who will foment the change from the bottom up and will not agree to be treated as objects. Only aware women can do this, not women who are just out to equalize conditions of service – they will not succeed.”

Gentle leadership

Nagen’s brand of feminism includes a call to eliminate the common practice according to which men head women’s midrashot, including those institutions that are considered progressive and innovative. She would like the colleges to do what Tzahali did: appoint women to direct them.

“It’s critical for women to be the heads of the army preparatory courses and of the religious colleges for women. It’s insane that they’re headed by men,” Nagen asserts. “There is a tremendous women’s movement in these places. How can men even allow themselves to think that they have the right to decide? That is wrong. Women must take the lead, and the leadership must be gentle, truly gentle.”

However much Nagen’s religious feminism makes certain rabbis lose sleep, it may also rankle radical feminists. “In its first stage, feminism said equal rights for all, liberal feminism,” she explains. “We joined ranks with the men, such as in the High Court of Justice case involving Alice Miller [Miller petitioned the court to be allowed to join a training course for air force pilots, and in the wake of her victory, in 1995, the IDF began to recruit women for combat units]. Then the feminist movement said: Our culture has to change. But there was a voice that was passed over: the voice of ‘essentialist’ feminism. I am an essentialist ... I say that women have a separate essence – the religious world believes that. Precisely because today’s world allows various choices, you, as a woman, need to choose which task you want or don’t want to assume. Not everything goes, we have to be careful here. We need a precise dialogue, we have to help them understand what it means to be a religious girl and what it means to be a woman.”

Nagen was a guest of honor at the recent event at the Soldier’s House, but had reservations about the remarks made there by Tevet-Wiesel. The chief of staff’s adviser on women’s affairs thrilled the religious high-school girls when she told them they could be combat soldiers. As far as Tevet-Wiesel is concerned (she herself is a graduate of the Tzfira ulpana), a female religious soldier can fulfill any task in the army.

“That is liberal feminism, which says: Everything you, a man, can do, I, a woman, can do better,” Nagen observes. She says, however, that, “It’s not so. They, the men, will be fighters, but you, a woman, have to bring life into the world. You will carry life in your body afterward. How do you create and fulfill your spiritual avocation? Not at any price. In this regard, we have to work very carefully, both to allow the horses to gallop forward but also help them direct themselves. Our great mission is not to go overboard with the ambition to be fighting soldiers. In Tzahali there is a small minority, two or four girls out of 200 graduates, who were drafted to combat assignments. We are with them all the way. But we also talk a great deal about how women should stay women, stay Jewish, stay with the values of the Jewish home, with the family. For me that is critical.”

The IDF apparently does not occupy itself with feminist theories. It is excited mostly at the discovery of a new population group that is eager to serve, and it will offer the female religious recruits whatever it can. Tevet-Wiesel discerns among these young women, including her own daughters who are students at Tzfira, the makings of “a large social revolution” that will affect civil life in Israel.

“A relatively large group of girls from the religious Zionist movement is taking action, making a statement, not necessarily following the mainstream, not necessarily according to what the rabbis say,” Tevet-Wiesel observes. “They are saying: ‘We think it is the right thing to do, and we are doing it.’ That also has implications for what they will do afterward, in civilian life. I imagine that a religious woman who serves in [Military Intelligence] Unit 8200 will not necessarily be a teacher at an ulpana afterward and will not necessarily fulfill the traditional roles. Well, she may be a teacher and enjoy it, but [the army experience] opens a very broad range of possibilities for her.”