IDF Order Prioritizes Religious Soldiers' Feelings Over the Right of Women to Equality

Religious soldiers must subordinate themselves to the army, not the opposite. That’s how it is in a modern army in a properly run state.

File photo: IDF soldiers near the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
Eyal Toueg

The new order issued by Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot to regulate mixed-gender military service, by which religious soldiers can ask to avoid doing guard duty or riding in vehicles with female soldiers, does not constitute anything dramatic in and of itself. It’s an expansion of the “appropriate integration order” that the army came up with in 2003, as the number of women and religious soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces increased in general, and in field units in particular. It states clearly that a religious soldier cannot be forced to serve alongside a woman “under circumstances of seclusion or immodesty.”

The order from 2003 allowed the religious soldier to serve in a gender-separated framework in which he could, for example, refuse to take instruction from a woman. The issue of women singing at official ceremonies and leisure activities, which has rocked the IDF on numerous occasions in recent years, is another expression of this order and its implications for the IDF.

The new order ostensibly comes to resolve the identity conflicts that have been preoccupying the military and have been reflected in an number of episodes, like the extreme statements of rabbis against integrating women, or against LGBT people in the army, or these rabbis’ efforts to rewrite the rules of engagement according to religious values.

Nevertheless, the order reiterates the principle that the service of men and women is subject to the dictates and framework of Jewish law in its most stringent interpretation, which sees women, by virtue of their existence, as infringing on modesty, and gives preference to the feelings of religious soldiers over the right of women to equality.

This process has no parallel in any Western military. Upholding the principle that a soldier can choose with whom to guard or train, or to choose the gender of his instructor or commander, is wrong, and invites the unbridled influence of various communities. Based on this logic, religious soldiers could refuse to serve with gay soldiers, or with Druze soldiers who don’t keep kosher. At what point does consideration for the feelings of religious soldiers come at the expense of the other, excluded groups?

These orders will inevitably impair the integration and advancement of women in the army, a process that is part of the lengthy struggle to integrate and advance women in Israeli society and public life. The exclusion of women will occur by virtue of the numerical advantage of religious soldiers over women in field units and in combat positions – 30-40 percent to 4 percent. It will thus be natural, given these orders, for commanders to prefer avoiding dilemmas by reducing women’s integration into the military.

Religious soldiers must subordinate themselves to the army, not the opposite. That’s how it is in a modern army in a properly run state. Its orders, conduct, and military doctrine should not be subject to Jewish law and interpretation, but solely to operational and civic considerations.