Israeli Army to Recruit More Women for Combat Amid Dispute Over Co-ed Service

IDF chief to meet with rabbis in bid to bridge gaps.

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Women combatants in the Israel Defense Forces' mixed Caracal Battalion unit.
Women combatants in the Israel Defense Forces' mixed Caracal Battalion unit.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP
Gili Cohen
Yair Ettinger

The Israeli army has decided to increase the number of women serving in combat roles in the Home Front Command amid a dispute with the religious community over co-ed military service. 

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is reaching out to rabbis, hoping to achieve a meeting of the minds or at least to alleviate tensions over new commands for joint male-female military service.

Beginning with the March draft cohort, four rescue units in the Home Front Command have officially become co-ed, with equal numbers of male and female combat soldiers.

Currently, the ratio of male to female combat soldiers in the Home Front Command is 70 to 30. However, the Israel Defense Forces has decided in principle to recruit more women to the command, due to demand from women who want to serve there.

Israel’s aerial defense system has several mixed units, and the aspiration is to increase the number of women serving in them, to near-parity with men.

These units join the four existing co-ed battalions — Caracal, Cheetah (Bardelas), Lions of Jordan and Lions of the Valley, a new battalion — all of which are involved in border defense. In these units, the numerical balance shifts toward female service members, who constitute around 60 percent of their members.

“There’s more demand now, and we think it’s appropriate. There’s no reason why not,” says a senior commanding officer in the Home Front Command about the growing popularity of combat positions among female recruits. “The women are voting with their feet, and it's a source of great pride. They do everything a male combat soldier does. It’s true that we had to think how to adapt the equipment for them, but substantively, they don’t get any breaks.”

'The only issue is that people have made it one'

The officer, who was speaking with Haaretz on the condition of anonymity, said it's natural for boys and girls to grow up together and to go to school together, "and it’s perfectly natural for them to go to the army together. The only issue is that people are making it an issue."

In compliance with the recent joint service order, women are being assigned to the tank corps on a trial basis, a move that incurred unanimous opposition from rabbis of the religious Zionist movement.

In the wake of the order, a group of mainstream rabbis from the religious Zionist community published an open letter calling on young religious people to avoid joining mixed units, where the sexes are not properly segregated, in their eyes. The religious community has also been protesting the new “joint service” order, which sets forth new rules for co-ed service.

Eisenkot has summoned a number of rabbis to a meeting on Wednesday, at army headquarters in Tel Aviv over the issue. The invitees include Rabbi Haim Drukman, head of the Bnei Akiva yeshivas center and Rabbi Yaaqov Medan of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva.

Most of these figures have been involved in a dialogue with the army for a long time, but the present meeting is marked by a crisis of faith between the parties. Late last week the transcription of recorded remarks by Madan was published, in which he charged that the chief of staff had broken all his promises. On Wednesday morning Madan refused to discuss his expectations of today’s meeting, saying he and his fellow rabbis hope to cooperate with the military.

Israel Channel 2 television news reported that Rabbi Eli Sadan, the co-director with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Bnei David pre-military academy and the hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli, was also invited to the meeting. Students at hesder yeshivas combine military service with religious study, in a special arrangement with the army.

On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry sent Sadan and Levinstein a letter summoning them to a hearing on March 30 to discuss the future of their institutions' relationship with the army.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week issued an ultimaturm to Levinstein over inflammatory remarks the rabbi made recently against women serving in the army. The defense minister threatened to expel the Eli academy from the hesder program if Levinstein did not resign as co-director of the yeshiva and the army prep school.

Lieberman told Levinstein about the planned hearing earlier this week, saying in a letter. "We tried in every way to avoid this friction," he wrote to Levinstein. "Twice we forgave, the third time is too much."

The summons specified that Levinstein's attacks on the army and those who serve in it undermine the purpose of the hesder program. The opinions voiced by the rabbi "are not things that the defense minister and the defense establishment believe students of the yeshiva and the pre-military academy should be hearing in the context of their studies, neither in their form nor their content," the summons said.

In a response, the Bnei David pre-military academy said it would not cooperate with any attempt to infringe on the right to freedom of expression of the rabbis, students and graduates of the program. The response statement added that Levinstein does not teach in the yeshiva.

The inauguration of a fourth co-ed battalion has whipped up the furor over women in combat units. Some military figures point to the assignment of Lieut. Col. Nir Doft as the commander of the Lions of the Valley Battalion as a particular irritant. Doft grew up in Tel Aviv, graduated from the pre-military yeshiva and lives in the West Bank settlement of Bruhin. In recent weeks he has been under pressure in religious Zionist circles, notably from rabbis, to forgo the position.

On Tuesday the Kipa website (Hebrew-only) published a piece by a major in the reserves, who like Doft belongs to the religious Zionist community, calling on Doft to decline the assignment so as not to lend a hand to "this sin." Also on the same website, Rabbi Yaakov Dvir, a declared opponent of co-ed service who has also said that homosexuality is perversion, accuses the IDF of using Doft as an “arrowhead in its war against the rabbis and religious Zionism.

In an interview on the IDF website, Doft said he hadn’t anticipated being named to this position, but he’s happy as a clam about the “opportunity to build something new in the army, and to take part in a project this immense, significant and unique. I think I have the best job in the army.”

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