Israeli Rabbis Go on Warpath as Religious Women Increasingly Join Army

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Women soldiers on parade in Tel Aviv, May 2017.
Women soldiers on parade in Tel Aviv, May 2017.Credit: David Bachar
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In honor of the recent International Women’s Day, the Israel Air Force released a video celebrating the women in its ranks and mocking the rabbis who have tried to stand in their way. The video went viral within a matter of days, but then suddenly disappeared.

It is not clear whether the decision to remove it was prompted by pressure from the religious establishment or because it hadn’t been properly cleared by the IDF Spokesman’s office. 

Israeli army takes down Women's Day video empowering female soldiers

Whatever the case may be, the controversy it sparked highlights the escalating conflict between Israel’s rabbinical establishment and military leaders over the role of women in the army.

It’s obvious why Orthodox rabbis – and they dominate the religious establishment in Israel – would oppose women serving in the army. Many of them, as the now-deleted air force video pointed out, still believe a woman’s place is in the home and that women are an unwanted distraction for men serving on the front lines.

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One of the most famous attacks on women serving in the army came from Rabbi Yigal Levinstein in March 2017. He told students at his premilitary academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli that military service has “driven our girls crazy. 

“They recruit them to the army, where they enter as Jews – but they’re not Jews by the time they leave. Not in the genetic sense, but all of their values and priorities have been upset, and we must not allow it,” he said.


And just this week, Levinstein’s colleague, Rabbi Eli Sadan, was the subject of heavy criticism after comments he made four years ago resurfaced in a Channel 10 TV news story.

Sadan told students that an educated and independent woman is “crippled.” He also addressed women participating in the army, noting, “The relative advantage of a man is to stand with bravery and courage against very difficult situations – be that with a machine gun in war or against money launderers in the Finance Ministry. A woman’s skill is to build joy, light and completeness in the home.”

Yet women have always served in the Israeli army. In fact, Israel is one of the few countries in the world where military service is compulsory for both men and women. So why are the rabbis suddenly up in arms?

Two key trends of recent years help explain the new rabbinical campaign aiming to prove that military service is bad for women, bad for men and bad for the country – claiming, among other things, that women are much more prone to injury than men; that military service can jeopardize their fertility; and that, by accommodating women, the army is forced to compromise its standards of excellence.

Going into combat units

The first trend is the huge increase in the number of women taking advantage of the opportunity to volunteer in combat units, where they serve side by side with men.

Women served in combat units during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, but were prohibited from doing so for many years after.

Things began to change in 1994 when 23-year-old Alice Miller, a South African-born Israeli, took the army to court for not allowing her to try out for its pilot training course. Miller won her battle in the High Court of Justice, and though she was ultimately rejected from the pilot training course on medical grounds, she opened a door that had been slammed shut on Israeli women many decades earlier. (Yael Rom had been the first Israeli woman to graduate from pilot training, in December 1951, before the practice was stopped.)

A religious woman on parade in the IDF in Tel Aviv, May 2017.Credit: David Bachar

Since Miller’s landmark victory, 1,268 women have been admitted to the Israel Air Force flight academy and 49 of them have earned their wings, according to data provided by the Israel Defense Forces.

In 2001, Roni Zuckerman – the granddaughter of two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt – became the first Israeli woman to become a combat pilot, and now women account, on average, for 5 percent of cadets in each incoming class.

In 2000, an amendment to Israel’s Defense Service Law stipulated that women have equal rights to serve in any role in the IDF. It opened the way for women to serve in many different combat positions.

Many Israeli women volunteering for combat these days serve in one of four coed light infantry battalions that patrol the country’s less volatile borders. The first and best-known, Caracal (whose name is derived from the desert cat whose genders look the same) was established in 2004. After completing seven months of training, soldiers in Caracal are stationed on the Egyptian border.

The second coed battalion, Lions of Jordan, was established in 2014, and its soldiers patrol the northern Jordan Valley on Israel’s eastern border. The third, Bardelas (the Hebrew name for cheetah), was founded in 2015, and its soldiers patrol the southern Arava region. The fourth, Lions of the Valley, was established last year, with its soldiers stationed in the southern Jordan valley.

In all these battalions, women account for the majority of recruits – anywhere from 60 to 70 percent.

Several rescue units in the Home Front Command and several aerial defense units are also coed today. And just this month, 13 women who completed their training in a new trial program for female tank operators last December were deployed along Israel’s southern border. Several of them will undergo tank commander training as well.

Women also serve today in field intelligence, the artillery corps, the border police and the canine unit (Oketz).

An estimated 7 percent of women in the army today serve in combat roles.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz, the number of women serving in combat has grown more than fourfold since 2012. In that year, 547 women served in combat, but by 2016 (the latest year for which figures are available) that number had climbed to 2,445. The number is believed to have grown substantially in 2017 as well.

IDF women soldiers on parade during Israel's 30th Independence Day celebrations in 1978.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

The army attributes this trend not only to the fact that more combat positions are open to women nowadays, but also to stories of female bravery that have been widely reported and added to the allure of this type of military service.

Losing their religion?

In Jewish religious law, men and women are not allowed to touch one another until they are married. (Recognizing this issue for observant soldiers, the IDF first introduced a set of rules for modest behavior and separate living arrangements in 2002.) So it is clear why the spread of coed units and battalions would draw fierce opposition from the rabbinical establishment.

But that is not the only reason for the recent outcry. The rabbis are equally concerned by the growing number of religious women enlisting in the army in recent years.

Religious women in Israel are exempt from the draft, as part of an agreement hammered out in the early years of the state. In lieu of two years in the military, most of these women sign up for one year of voluntary national service, known as “Sherut Leumi.”

Although the religious Zionist community encourages men to enlist in the army and to serve in the most elite units, women are discouraged from getting anywhere near an army base. Their “exposure” to nonreligious Israelis during the course of their military service, it is feared, might cause them to question their beliefs and tempt them to violate certain laws.

Recent years, though, have seen a dramatic increase in the number of religious women enlisting in the army.

According to a study prepared by Ranit Budaie-Hyman, director of a network of pluralistic schools in Israel, the number of observant women serving in the army rose from 935 in 2010 to 2,499 in 2016. The number for 2017 is estimated at 2,700, she said.

Women soldiers preparing for training exercise.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“It is not only the numbers that have grown, but we are also seeing a change in the profile of these religious women who are enlisting,” she explained. “If in the past it was mainly women from the geographical and social periphery of society, today we are seeing more and more women from the big cities, from affluent homes and from prestigious religious high schools.”

In addition, she said, if previously some 25 percent of religious high school girls would enlist in the army, today it is closer to one-third.

While the army embraces this trend, for Israel’s rabbinical establishment it is seen as an act of rebellion.

Perhaps most disturbing for the rabbis is the growing number of religious women volunteering for combat duty.

A recent Israeli television report revealed that 15 percent of religious women enlisting in the army were opting for combat duty – a near-50 percent increase from previous years.

“I don’t have the exact number, but what I can say is that the number of religious women in combat is disproportionately high,” said Sharon Brick-Deshen, the director of Mishartot Be’emunuah (“Serving with Faith”), a program that assists religious women interested in joining the army.

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