As Religious Debate Rages Over Female Soldiers, Orthodox Pilot Praises Women's Role in Israeli Air Force

In an article in the Orthodox press, a retiring F-16 pilot noted how he never 'had a bit of hesitation assigning female combat soldiers to dangerous flights over enemy lines'

A female soldier guides a flight simulator at an Israeli Air Force base.
Tomer Appelbaum

The most popular newsletter distributed on weekends in the religious-Zionist community featured an unusual article a week ago. It was written by a kippa-wearing combat pilot identified as Col. Matan. The article, which received rare approval for publication by Air Force chief Amikam Norkin, touches on the stormiest issues in the Orthodox community of late: women’s service in the Israel Defense Forces, especially Orthodox women in combat roles, and the claim that Orthodox soldiers are being held back because they're religiously observant.

The article was persuasive. Matan agrees with the statements by Rabbi Eli Sadan, the head of the premilitary academy in the settlement of Eli, who has largely retracted his harsh criticism of the IDF precisely on these matters. It seems IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot can chalk up a successful week in terms of his charged relationship with the religious community.

Matan, who is about to leave the career military, began his service in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, in the same squad with Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, whose death in a daring combat operation in Lebanon in late 2006 made him an icon of religious Zionism.

After his service in the Sayeret Matkal, Matan moved on to the air force, where he was trained as an F-16 pilot. He wrote that his words in the article were “carved from my heart. I feel very deep gratitude toward the group in which I grew up and was formed, a group with which I associate myself completely. And yet, the fact that I’m a kippa-wearing officer has never preoccupied me. I believe with all my heart that it’s as relevant as the color of my eyes.”

Matan wrote that he didn’t join the Sayeret Matkal as “an emissary” or “to advance an agenda. I joined because it was my turn and I very much wanted to contribute to the country. And yes, I also saw this as a great mitzvah. Unfortunately, lately suddenly I hear that some people are afraid of me and think I’m part of a big, planned and calculated move to take over the army. They call this ‘increased religiosity.’ I’m also suddenly hearing questions from the other side. My ‘mission’ doesn’t meet their expectations, my impact as a religious officer doesn’t produce enough results.”

Matan wrote that in the coming year he will be retiring from the military. “I wanted to continue to advance in rank, but my commanders chose another candidate, an excellent officer selected because the decision-makers thought he was more suitable than I was. I didn’t think for a moment that I wasn’t selected because of the kippa on my head. I’m sure that it was of no interest to anyone during the discussion. I will end my military service without the slightest sense of discrimination.”

And then came a particularly interesting part of the piece – Matan’s thoughts on women serving in the IDF.

“If you want to know whether women are permitted or prohibited from joining the army – go ask a rabbi. If you want to know whether quality girls are needed in the army, I can answer that. They are very much needed. I’m not talking about gender equality. I’m referring to the basic need for quality human resources in an endless number of roles.”

As Matan put it, in the squadron he commanded, besides the female combat soldiers on flight crews, young women have served in operations, administration, intelligence and in the technical arms. Today more than 30 percent of the soldiers in the latter are female.

“These soldiers do sacred work. True, the air force made some of the equipment easier for them to do their jobs, but they return this investment over and over. To the best of my judgment, the functions the female soldiers fill in the squadron are critical to the country’s security. There aren't enough suitable men to do all these jobs,” he wrote.

“I’m not ashamed to admit it: Until six years ago, when I was asked whether religious girls should join the army, I responded that if I had girls I would prefer they did national civilian service. Today when I’m asked the same question, I respond differently,” he wrote.

“I answer that we need quality human resources, and the conditions in the military today are different than in the past. I can say for sure that the women who come as combat soldiers to air force squadrons are excellent combat soldiers not in the slightest inferior to the men. As a commander I didn’t have a bit of hesitation assigning female combat soldiers to dangerous flights over enemy lines. They did it impeccably.”

Matan said women could fill some combat roles excellently, even if they couldn’t be combat soldiers in the Golani or Nahal infantry brigades.

“They shouldn’t be there to promote some feminist agenda. They should be there because they will contribute to the country’s security. Any female combat soldier on patrol frees up combat soldiers with an attack role for training and preparation for war,” he wrote.

“Still, it’s clear to me that joint combat service, which includes significant physical effort, is a problem in terms of Jewish law. This must be taken into consideration and the appropriate solutions must be found.”