After Series of Scandals, New Israeli Military Rules on Gender Segregation Strikes Fine Balance

The army’s demographic makeup is becoming more religious and gender inclusive; it should be commended for trying to consider everyone.

Caracal Battalion soldiers during a training exercise, August 31, 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A joint order issued by the Israel Defense Forces Sunday on religious issues reflects an effort by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other senior IDF officers to strike a balance between two contradictory trends in the army over the past decade.

The first is the considerable increase in the number of religious soldiers and commanders in field units (in addition to a relatively small but significant increase in ultra-Orthodox recruits). The second trend involves the opening up of positions, including front-line ones, to women. When the two trends intersect, there is sometimes unavoidable friction.

Over most of that period, the IDF brass preferred to navigate a middle ground and avoided developing mandatory rules. Unsurprisingly, however, this abundance of caution has thrust the army into scandal time after time, including the controversy over an attempt to inject a reference to God into the customary Memorial Day recitation; the dismissal of religious cadets who refused, out of religious objections, to attend a program where women were singing; and recently, the numerous complaints lodged by rabbis and religious parents over alleged intentional harassment of soldiers who grow beards.

The work at headquarters over the current order was carried out intermittently for five years. The final version didn’t overjoy any of those involved, but it appears to be a logical solution under the circumstances. The chief of staff, whose signature appears on the order, has underlined the principle of commitment to the overriding national interest based on which the IDF operates, along with the IDF’s operational role, the essential need to maintain unity within the ranks and the need to avoid hurting the feelings of those serving in the military.

The compromises reflected in the order are reasonable. They provide exemptions at social and entertainment events to religious soldiers for reasons of religious modesty (including, for example, avoiding hearing women singing, which some religious Jews consider immodest) but not at official ceremonies. The order bars men and women sleeping in the same location, but allows it in extenuating circumstances during military operations when there is no alternative. During hostilities, the IDF will also not remove soldiers from shelters simply to maintain gender separation.

The order reflects an attempt to maintain fundamental principles relating to the IDF’s character as a broadly-based organization. Any variance from those principles requires a special request by religious solders, whose commanders will take the soldiers’ needs into account based on the rules set out in the order and the commanders’ own judgment. In other words, most of the limitations are not imposed up front on female soldiers. Instead, any lenience to male religious soldiers is extended only upon request.

The new procedures are consistent with conclusions reached over the past decade with regard to ultra-Orthodox soldiers, permitting male-only settings as long as they are on a small scale. There is a policy of accommodating lower-ranking soldiers but once they become career soldiers or officers, they are required to adhere to all of the rules involving public conduct.

The order on religious policy was issued on the same day that Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman ordered permanent funding for the army’s Nativ conversion course to Judaism for soldiers, including notably immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not Jewish according to halakha, Jewish religious law.

The two developments show the extent to which the army is on the front lines when it comes to the issues of religion and state in Israel. And to his credit, Eisenkot has insisted on wading into issues that most of his predecessors have avoided to the extent that they could.