Israeli Army Chief Rabbi Calls for More Gender Separation

In break country with military policy, rabbi says religious officers, NCOs should not serve alongside women

Female soldiers in the IDF's Bardalas battallon
Jack Guez/AFP

Flying in the face of military policy, the chief rabbi of the Israeli army sent a letter to army rabbis yesterday saying that religiously observant male officers and noncommissioned officers should not serve with women in combat.

The letter was apparently written in response to criticism of the chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Eyal Krim, in religious Zionist circles. Krim’s office sent it to all military rabbis on Wednesday, writing, “Observant officers and NCOs cannot serve in gender-mixed combat units.”

That position suits rabbis affiliated with the religious Zionist camp who, from their hardline fringe to their liberal camp, object to the Israeli army widening the options for female combat soldiers under the new joint service order.

IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Krim on July 13, 2016 (prior to appointment).
IDF Spokesman's Office / Reuters

Krim does qualify, however, that even under the existing joint service order (which he denies having had a central role in writing), soldiers who object do not have to serve in mixed units.

However, the chief rabbi’s holds that the order, promises that no one will have to serve in a mixed-gender unit against his will or conscience. In effect, the order determines that officers and NCOs may lnot be able to serve in segregated units where men and women do not mix.

The order states that the rank and file doing compulsory service have no choice but to serve, while career soldiers made the choice to stay and therefore must accept the army’s decisions regarding their placement. The army may take personal requests into account but does not have to commit to placing religiously observant soldiers in segregated units.

The new joint service order clarifies that career soldiers may ask to avoid activities with the opposite sex when there is “concern about physical contact, being alone with a woman in an enclosed space, or activity in revealing clothing,” but the request may not be accepted. The order also states that if religious officers or noncoms are assigned to mixed combat units and asked for their assignment to be reevaluated, out of consideration for the officers’ feelings, the decision will be brought to the commander of the Manpower Division, whose decision will also be based on a recommendation from the army’s chief rabbi. It seems from the chief rabbi’s statement that he would support such requests.

Meanwhile, religious officers and NCOs do serve in mixed units. The commander of the new mixed-gender battalion, Brig. Col Nir Doft, is a religious settler who lives in the West Bank settlement Bruchin. His appointment led to calls in religious Zionist circles for him to refuse it.

Krim’s letter was sent a day after the Mako news site ran a story titled, “Three months before attacking it, the chief rabbi wrote the joint service order.”

Chief army rabbi vs. influential West Bank rabbi

The story reveals the draft of a declaration that Krim issued half a year ago, before the public furor over the joint service order. Krim had hoped to sign up rabbis in religious Zionist circles in support of the declaration. It supports the joint service order and clarifies that the military rabbinate had a share in writing it.

Today Krim explains that he decided to shelve the declaration after Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a highly influential West Bank rabbi, opposed it.

Since Aviner had been the only addressee on the draft declaration, there is a hint here that he leaked it. Meanwhile, despite what the media is reporting, Krim denies being an active partner in writing or editing the joint service order, says his aide, Udi Schwartz. The rabbi was given the order already finalized for comment, said the aide.

Through Schwartz, Krim also clarifies his position on a knotty issue roiling the army for years: women singing at formal military ceremonies. Krim insists it should be allowed and soldiers should attend such ceremonies, for the sake of army cohesion, he ruled.

In the letter, which was designed chiefly to rebut criticism from the hardline camp, Krim also hit back at the rabbis of religious Zionism and their positions.

Perhaps again aiming at Aviner, he writes that “one of the leading rabbis in religious Zionism” publicly announced that the joint service order should be abolished outright, and that the former law, titled “Proper Integration,” should be reinstated. Previously, however, this same leading rabbi had called it the law of improper integration and called to oppose it, Krim wrote – meaning that “the handling of the subject has known ups and downs,” and bore reexamination.

Driving home the point, Krim wrote that he had talked by phone with a leading rabbi, presented him the joint service order and received his support – only to hear the rabbi castigate the law in public later. “But what my ears heard, I cannot deny,” Krim wrote.