IDF General Causes Storm After Calling to Curtail Religiosity in Army

Ex-personnel chief Avi Zamir warns against extremism in army.

The former Israel Defense Forces Human Resources head called on the army to halt its tendency to religious extremism and renegotiate the relationship between secular and religious soldiers.

Avi Zamir, who finished his tenure a month ago, sent Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his General Staff colleagues a letter concluding his tenure at Human Resources. In the document, which spans nearly 30 pages, he details the struggle between the Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate, and says rabbinic demands for modesty undermine the standing of female officers and soldiers.

zamir - Tomer Appelbaum - July 20 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

Zamir's call for curtailing religion's role in the IDF has stirred a storm among the top brass, in part because it comes after a report by the chief of staff's adviser on women's affairs. Brigadier General Gila Kalifi-Amir had written that the "appropriate inclusion" orders, regulations designed to minimize tension between women and religious men, are being applied in increasingly strict ways, to the point of creating "untenable" situations and "extreme religious coercion."

After the two documents were published, rabbis inside and outside the army contacted the top IDF brass, demanding that there be no unilateral change to the status quo.

Zamir warns of "processes that challenge the model of a people's army, with neo-liberalism on the one hand and religious extremism on the other." Nonetheless, his letter focuses on the religious tensions.

Zamir recommends that the chief of staff stress the need to uphold national behavioral norms. He believes this is possible through a "quiet dialog" with civilians, including rabbis, in order to "create a steady backing" for the army's policy.

The outgoing Human Resources head also recommends reforming the organizational orders for the Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate, arguing that currently, the IDF essentially lets the two bodies, which have conflicting orientations, compete. Zamir proposes giving the Education Corps responsibility for Jewish consciousness activities, as opposed to the Military Rabbinate. The latter has drawn complaints from commanders who called its actions "religious-nationalist brainwashing."

Zamir also calls for updating the orders for "appropriate inclusion" and preparing broader "joint service" orders, which will anchor rules of conduct for women and men as well as for soldiers from different sectors of society. The idea would be to create sensitivity for different groups and to find a common denominator during their joint military service.

The former Human Resources chief is also recommending minimizing socially homogenous units due to the dynamic they create, and calls for reinforcing the national ethos in officers' training.

Zamir warns "there are efforts by rival groups to shape public norms so they fit their own private agendas." He considers the IDF a critical arena in the fight for the state's character, and says that its norms therefore have enormous impact.

The senior officer says the IDF must show great awareness and act carefully. Zamir says that if the army does not act now, the cultural war among the ranks will intensify, and this may seriously endanger the abilities of the IDF to carry out its tasks.

A great part of the current debate is focused on the order for "appropriate inclusion," which was introduced in 2003 at rabbis' demands, and was originally intended to minimize tension between religious soldiers and female soldiers by creating a physical separation.

For example, men cannot enter women's barracks and religious soldiers may serve in men-only units. Moreover, in units where women serve in combat roles, like the Home Front Command and some units in the Engineering Corps, there are men-only companies.

The General Staff has received many complaints by female officers and soldiers who faced discrimination due to extreme applications of the orders. For instance, there have been reports of battalion commanders who refused to hold entertainment shows that included women because of concerns that religious officers and soldiers would complain. Women also are filling fewer training positions because religious soldiers have objected.

In her article for the April issue of IDF magazine Ma'arachot, Kalifi-Amir summarized the findings of a study ordered by the army on the issue.

"'Appropriate inclusion' has become, over time, the main, if not the only, perspective through which joint service by women and men is implemented," she wrote.

"The order originally was intended to create a comfortable and respectful environment for all soldiers, but the way it is being implemented in practice is causing a double loss: Women's actions are being limited, and appropriate inclusion rules are being interpreted in an increasingly extreme manner, to the point where they are becoming untenable and impose religious extremism."

The IDF spokesman said in response, "Incorporating all communities in a way that ensures the proper use of all soldiers and the preservation of their dignity is a key task that has not yet been fully carried out. Naturally, the army is holding a professional, internal dialogue on all aspects of this issue. We do not intend to comment on documents that offer a partial picture, if any, of these issues."