Analysis

What Really Sparked the Latest Rabbinical Attack on the Army?

Just look at the number of religious women enlisting in the IDF to understand the frustration of rabbis

A course instructor of the Snapir ("Fin") Unit, a mixed male and female combat unit, practicing in inflatable rubber boats in the Haifa Bay.
Cpl. Iris Lainer /IDF Spokesperson's Film Unit.

Each time there is a lull in the sensitive standoff between the military and religion, someone steps forward to inflame the issue. On Tuesday it was Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leading religious Zionist rabbis.  He thought it was a good time to tell his students not to join the army if they were going to serve in mixed-gender units. This led to the usual fallout.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu demanded that the chief of staff resign. The prime minister and defense minister rejected these statements and backed Eizenkot. By chance, the IDF at the same time announced the appointment of a woman pilot as a squadron commander, for the first time in Israeli Air Force history.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu called on the chief of staff to resign; the prime minister and defense minister rejected these statements and backed Eizenkot.

Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett came out admirably against the rabbis’ attacks, issuing statements supporting the chief of staff and the IDF. On Wednesday three senior rabbis wrote a letter to Eizenkot denouncing the attackers. But Bennett also took a blow, for daring to defend the chief of staff, and had trouble setting his own house in order. MK Bezalel Smotrich, a party colleague, provided the public with a learned explanation about the physiological differences between men and women and attacked anyone trying “to blur these so-simple distinctions.”

In short, a repletion of the circular arguments going on for years around the rabbis’ attempt to dictate to the army different game rules. This attempt was made on the basis if the rabbis’ divisions – the high rate, much higher than their share in the population, of kippa wearing commanders and combatants.

But these divisions are imaginary. The overwhelming majority of religious soldiers obeys, in everyday life, the commander, not the rabbi. It’s doubtful if even a handful of would be recruits would heed the rabbis call and refuse to enlist.

Also, it appears the background to some of the rabbis’ ranting against the chief of staff stems from internal frustration. One of the outstanding trends in recent years has been the increase – by hundreds of percent – in the number of religious young women volunteering to the army. Some of them even ask for combatant posts, despite all the rabbis’ warnings. The IDF is helping them.

In the past year Eizenkot agreed to some compromises, some would say excessively, in the joint service order regulating men and women’s service. He decreased the outsourced education projects carried out by civilian organizations and ordered officers to focus on “shared and uniting activity rather than the separating.”

If he thought he managed to extinguish the flames, he was proved wrong this week. The struggles aren’t stopping for a moment. Recently a new campaign was launched by an ultra-Orthodox-nationalist organization, trying to compel the army to revoke a contract with one of the institutes that still holds officers courses.

In contrast, army researcher Professor Yagil Levy of the Open University wrote on Wednesday in an article on Haaretz’s site, that Eizenkot was the one who “institutionalized religious indoctrination in the IDF.”

Levy accuses the chief of staff, implicitly, of caving in to religious pressures, noting that Eizenkot receives a warm hug from the ultra-orthodox-national rabbis (excepting Aviner and Eliyahu, it appears) and warns that the next stage may be the army’s restricting women’s service in combat roles.

However, these observations are not in keeping with developments in the field. In Eizenkot’s era the rate of female soldiers serving as secretaries has been reduced and new roles have opened for women. The number of female combatants has risen by hundreds of percent and a record number of mixed combat units have opened.

Eizenkot is not an honorary member of the feminist movement, nor is he a liberal icon. He is maneuvering in a political minefield, and every step he takes is under scrutiny and often evokes sharp criticism. This is his last year in office. Perhaps he has tired somewhat of the relentless squabbling and maybe he too should have shown more firmness under pressure.

And yet, we must not forget the steps he did take, like removing the Jewish consciousness courses away from the military rabbinate and his insistence on a moral stand in the Elor Azaria case, when most politicians fled from. Here’s a pretty reasonable bet: we’re going to miss Eizenkot’s spine.