Analysis

Israeli Army Cancels Its Own Courses on Feminism, Citing Need for 'Consensus'

IDF’s volte-face on workshops for female officers is another casualty in the military’s war with Orthodox rabbis and power brokers

Soldiers participate in Independence Day celebrations at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, May 2, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel is famous for its female soldiers. One of the few countries in the world with a universal draft for both sexes, it is actively moving more women into an increasing number of key positions, including pilots and service in combat battalions.

But while there is clearly room for women in the Israel Defense Forces, it seems there is no room there for feminism. Four proposed workshops on feminist thought for female officers were deemed too controversial and were canceled by the head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, after a call for bids was sent out.

Among the goals of the workshops, titled “Preparation for the Development of Gender Consciousness and Leadership,” was “to enable leading female officers to help make the organization more egalitarian,” according to an article on the Hebrew news website Makor Rishon. The reporter had obtained a copy of the request for quotations for operating the course, issued in February.  

Initiated by the adviser to the IDF chief of staff on gender issues, Sharon Nir, the purpose of the courses was to teach women in leadership roles in the military the fundamentals of modern feminist thought, to analyze the way the IDF was organized in terms of the sexes and to brainstorm ways to promote equal opportunity in the future. The participants, dozens of female officers in all, were also expected to meet women in business, politics and academia over the course of each 10-part workshop.

Make no mistake — judging by the invitation for bids, the underlying purpose of the enterprise doesn’t appear to be ideological or political, to make the world a better place or spread egalitarian gospel — the project was fueled by the army’s own interests and growing staffing concerns. It was clearly designed in the hope that by raising awareness and making structural changes to the way female service members were treated, the army could motivate more female officers to re-up and extend their time in uniform. The very existence of the workshops would have demonstrated the IDF’s commitment to “meaningful” service for women.

But it was not to be. The Makor Rishon report quoted an army source as saying the bid invitation was withdrawn in order to “keep the IDF in the heart of the consensus.”

By canceling the workshops, the IDF sent the message that the military service of women, once a point of national pride, had become a political hot potato. A raging power struggle is under way between the army leadership, which wants to promote and expand the manpower (rather, woman power) that female recruits bring to the army at a time when filling the ranks with qualified personnel is a top concern, and Orthodox rabbis and power brokers, who see the expansion of roles for women in the IDF as a threat.

The Orthodox leadership’s fear and anxiety is two-pronged: It faces a quiet rebellion by young Orthodox women who are increasingly choosing army service over the civilian service alternative. Community leaders also openly worry that the physical proximity between men and women in the military threatens the moral fiber of members of both sexes. Orthodox leaders have been particularly unhinged by disclosures of the army’s plans to train young women to serve in tank crews.

Over the past year, fury at their attitudes have peaked — notably in a March incident when Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, head of a premilitary academy, was caught on tape making offensive remarks about female military service (not for the first time) and an organized campaign against women’s service was launched with a video meant to scare young Orthodox women away from the presumably corrupting influence of serving in the army.

The army’s reversal over the workshops fly in the face of the admirable way it has, thus far, stood up to pressure from the Orthodox establishment. Led by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF has, overall, appeared to do its best to dig in its heels when it comes to issues like female performers at official army ceremonies. It continues to expand the combat roles open to women even in the face of the opposition by rabbis and other leaders who see it as a religious imperative to keep women in what they see is their god-given domestic and childbearing realm.

This makes it especially disappointing that fear of the “F-word” caused them to surrender, and, if the Makor Rishon quote is accurate, that equal opportunities for female soldiers are somehow beyond the “consensus.” The curriculum of the proposed workshops, aimed at making the IDF a better, more sensitive work environment, was far from unusual. It is doubtful that similar programs to explore bias against immigrant soldiers from Russia or Ethiopia, for example, and aimed at helping them to feel more at home and to advance in the army, would be viewed as controversial.  

But in these fraught days, discussing feminist theory and female empowerment while in IDF uniform is seen as being as politically loaded, divisive and somehow dangerous. This probably demonstrates, more than anything else could, how badly such a workshop was needed.