Israel's Education Ministry's New Booklet Tells Religious Girls Serving in the Army Is for Boys

With stories of draft refusers and articles on volunteer activities, the brochure touts advantages of national service and almost doesn't mention military service

Women soldiers in the IDF.
Olivier Fitoussi

A new booklet that Israel’s Education Ministry has produced for girls in religious high schools preparing them for “meaningful service” to the state that almost completely obscures the option of joining the army.

The brochure deals nearly in its entirety with national service, a voluntary service for those exempt from enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces. The booklet touts the advantages of national service with articles about the activities girls can do while volunteering. Military service is mentioned sparsely, mostly in a negative context. According to Defense Ministry, over a quarter of all religious girls do army service.

The booklet, which was first reported on by the Walla News website, starts with quotes by the Education Ministry's director general: “State-religious education for boys stresses the importance of a meaningful service in the Israel Defense Forces... In girls’ education, the importance of a meaningful national service will be stressed."

Further in, the text presents three types of draft refusers: those who believe that the IDF is an army of occupation, those who won’t join because its soldiers have expelled Jews from their homes in the settlements and those who won’t enlist for religious reasons.

One story it uses for illustration is that of Eliyahu Cohen, a yeshiva student. "One reason that I, as an ultra-Orthodox, don't enlist is to 'depart from evil': Today's army is destructive to those who were educated in the ways of the holy Torah. A child who has been taught to fear God and observe the commandments his whole life suddenly discovers a new world full of desires and trials."

In one of the brochure's articles, Yaffa Gisser, a wife of a rabbi and former chairperson of the Bat Ami national service nonprofit organization, writes: “Although our girls voluntarily give a lot for the greater good with a feeling of responsibility toward Israeli society, even though they take the responsibility of difficult tasks upon themselves and fulfill them to the best of their abilities, national service is criticized within the religious Zionist discourse. It is a discourse that is not complimentary and often not respectful."

She continues: "Likewise, there is criticism, which is not always justified, of the spiritual and religious atmosphere that surrounds the girls during their service, as well as the importance and need for their volunteer service. Besides these criticisms, some other parts of religious Zionism are actively engaged in increasing the percentage of girls joining the IDF. National service has to contend with critics from all sides, and it is in a constant struggle for its standing, and I am sorry that it does not always get the respect it deserves.”

Lawmaker Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid sent a letter to Education Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday in which he protested the spirit of the handbook. “The policy of ignoring the drafting of schoolgirls into the IDF is not only entirely not educational but is also ineffective," he wrote. "It is clear to all that the phenomenon of drafting girls will not disappear.” He added, “We entreat you not to lend a hand to distributing a lesson plan that addresses 'meaningful service' while blatantly denying the possibility of IDF service, which more than a quarter of girls receiving a religious education have wisely chosen.”

Stern also noted that no one from Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party attended an event at the Knesset last week which honored religious female soldiers, which, in addition to hundreds such soldiers, was attended by the defense minister, IDF and Defense Ministry officials, lawmakers, male and female religious leaders and educators. “The absence of representation from your party was noticeable and disappointing,” Stern stated.

Members of the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement, a religious Zionist group, also expressed their objections to the spirit of the handbook. “Officials in state-religious education ignoring the possibility of military service for girls is an educational mistake that creates great dissonance between the girl’s religious educational system and the reality on the ground,” the organization stated. “There are different halakhic opinions regarding the draft in religious Zionism, and there is no justification for ignoring it. We as well as thousands of girls who have been drafted have faith in their ability to solidify a religious identity observing the Torah and the commandments in every environment, and out of an obligation to the State of Israel.”

Bennett’s office refused to respond directly to the criticisms and referred inquiries to the Education Ministry. “State-religious education," the office said, "teaches students to be loyal to the people and to the state.” It added: “The handbook in question is balanced in its educational approach, which gives advice and preparation for girls who choose a meaningful military service. The position of the education minister is clear. He supports girls who join the IDF and girls who volunteer for national service.”