Analysis

IDF Shoots Itself in Foot With Approach to Mixed-gender Combat Units

In the battle over men and women doing army service together, the IDF chief of staff’s policies on the issue have caused liberal and conservative rabbis to join ranks against the army’s current policy.

Members of the IDF's Caracal mixed-gender infantry battalion, September 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In the blink of an eye on Wednesday, the storm over remarks by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein about why young women shouldn’t serve in the army with men turned into a repeat of older controversies. It happened when a group of rabbis and their wives – all with ideologies that place them somewhere between the center and liberal wing of religious Zionism – released a letter calling on students not to enlist in combat units where men and women serve together.

The letter is proof that the Israel Defense Forces’ joint service order, which has already gone into effect, has caused a major crisis in the army – one that is much more complex than any disparaging comments by Rabbi Levinstein about women soldiers or members of the LGBT community.

It is also much more than the rebellious comments expressed recently by Rabbi Zvi Tau – head of the so-called “hardali” camp, in the gray area bordering the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox camps – and by students of Rabbi Levinstein at his pre-army preparatory program in the West Bank settlement of Eli.

The signatories to the new letter included Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat; Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of the Ma’aleh Gilboa yeshiva of the religious kibbutz movement; Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein of the Har Etzion yeshiva in Alon Shvut; Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar religious-Zionist outreach organization; and Esti Rosenberg, founder of the Migdal Oz women’s seminary.

They refrained from attacking the IDF, sufficing instead with advising their students (both male and female) on what is and isn’t permitted when it comes to the new army order on joint service.

The message is that there is a moral duty – one also demanded by Jewish religious law (halakha) – to serve the country. But while service in mixed-gender units away from the front line is permitted, serving in mixed-gender combat battalions isn’t. Their letter carries great weight.

It doesn’t matter whether the joint service command is good or bad. For the moment, views on the matter are rather predictable in each camp, if one wishes to see the strong political and public influence the IDF order is exerting within the ranks of religious Zionism.

Conservative and liberal rabbis, who are normally separated by a yawning ideological divide – on halakhic, political and public matters – are currently experiencing a rare unity of exceptional and almost historical proportions. (“Conservative” is a reference to conservative rabbis with a small “c,” not rabbis affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement.)

Even though some of the signatories to the letter have come out strongly against Rabbi Levinstein and his comments, and despite the dry language of the new letter, they, like Levinstein, view the joint service order as a threat to the possibility of men and women among their constituents serving in the IDF. Or at least, they view the order as a militant, declarative act that cannot be allowed to pass without protest.

It’s a drama because the yeshiva heads of the conservative “line,” including Levinstein, are waging a rearguard action within religious Zionism in which the number one enemies – way ahead of secular spokesmen, and certainly well ahead of the army – are religious liberals and religious feminists.

It’s a drama because liberal groups, including rabbis, are now being freed, as part of a long process, from the longtime hegemony of rabbi leaders and are not afraid to confront them on a range of subjects.

It’s a drama because the list of the signatories to the letter, which includes a call not to serve in mixed battalions, is the most left-wing there is among the religious public. And a very wide range of rabbis and their wives, from the left to the right, have come out against the joint service order.

The fact that moderate rabbis have joined the cause should not be interpreted as fear or political calculation regarding the conservatives, but rather their genuine, unanimous opposition to the order, and also a reflection of their disappointment with the dialogue they’ve had with IDF commanders.

Even religious feminists such as Michal Nagen – who heads the Tzahali pre-army preparatory program for women, and who has been a target of pressure from conservative rabbis – has been adamantly against the joint service order. Furthermore, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a centrist who heads the Har Etzion yeshiva, has come out strongly and unexpectedly against the IDF. “We sat with the chief of staff,” he said. “We received assurances. All of the assurances that were issued were violated, each and every one of them.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has made a political mistake here, even if he views a woman’s right to serve in a tank as a necessary step toward a more just world. He has opened a new front against friendly rabbis, instead of dealing with the united front of conservative rabbis who have long been frustrated by the army (for example, after the Military Rabbinate was stripped of responsibility for the IDF’s Jewish consciousness division, and over new regulations on soldiers having beards). In fact, rebellious sentiments are beginning to be voiced.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has escalated the situation with his call for Rabbi Levinstein’s pre-army program in Eli to be shut down if the rabbi doesn’t resign. As a result, Lieberman’s sworn political rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party), will step up his support of the Eli program. For years, Bennett has zigzagged between the conservatives and liberals in the community and hasn’t hesitated in the past to attack Rabbi Levinstein when he understood the direction in which the winds were blowing on the religious street. At this time, the winds are blowing in the opposite direction.

Rabbi Tau and the heads of the army preparatory programs identified with him should be sending flowers to Eisenkot and Lieberman. Rabbi Levinstein himself has no prospect at this point of ever becoming Israel’s chief rabbi, and it’s doubtful whether he would even be welcomed outside the ranks of his peers. But by virtue of the scandal around him, the rabbis currently supporting him appear to be from the heart of the religious consensus.

But you have to remember that the rabbis and army are not alone. There is a triad of forces with the third side being young religious men and women, some of whom are operating autonomously. Will the current crisis be reflected with their declining motivation to enlist in the IDF? Will religious soldiers refrain from becoming officers because the officers’ school includes a mixed battalion of male and female cadets? Obviously not.

Young religious men and women are rarely interested in enlisting in mixed-gender infantry battalions such as Caracal, and these will probably become secular enclaves in the army. In most units, though, life will proceed as normal, with a large contingent of male soldiers wearing knitted skullcaps.

The movement of young religious women enlisting in the army – which is expanding by 10 percent a year – grew from the bottom up and established facts on the ground even before liberal rabbis gave their support. But confrontation being what it is, there’s no way of knowing where things are heading.

Young religious men and women are aware of the crisis, and are highly attentive to what is going on. Perhaps they also know how to identify what looks like echoes of a culture war that will require them to take sides.