Israeli fighters in the mixed-gender Caracal battalion, October 2016. Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Explained

It’s Sex, Stupid: Why Israel's Orthodox Rabbis Are Battling the Idea of Women in Combat

The fear of members of the opposite sex touching each other has even the more moderate rabbis worried.



The brave young female soldier serving her country beside her male counterparts has been a central archetype of Israeli identity since the earliest days of the Jewish state. 

And despite the harsh realities of Israel Defense Forces service for women, including sexual harassment scandals and the fact that many female soldiers are tasked with less-than-challenging busy work, most 18-year-old Israeli women don their uniforms with pride. A substantial percentage is motivated not only to put in their minimum requisite service, but have pushed for challenging combat positions.   

So when a video of a leading Orthodox rabbi inveighing against women’s service in the IDF with fiery disparaging rhetoric hit the news in early March, the Israeli public was horrified. The issue became a political hot potato that just won't go away. One doesn't have to be female or a soldier to find the sexist ranting of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein to a group of young men insulting and offensive. In the video, Levinstein, head of the Bnei David pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli, gesticulates angrily, his voice dripping with disdain and leering insinuation. He bemoans the damage done to the growing number of Orthodox women who serve in the army, claiming it destroys their religious commitment and damages their “priorities” when it comes to family life and work.

Female military service, he says, is “madness” that belongs in a “mental asylum.”

Young Orthodox women who serve “come out being non-Jewish,” he declares. “It's crazy: Their value system is completely warped. Forget the secular girls, they are already completely insane.” Rhetorically, he asks the group of young men, “how can you marry a girl who has served in the army?” and they all laughed at the thought. Then he says, “We believe that women are women and men are men, and maybe it’s worth grabbing a wife before there are no women.”

Eliyahu Hershkowitz

In most countries around the world, the dominant issues in the debate surrounding women in combat is their level of effectiveness and the cultural impact of women being injured, kidnapped or killed. But in Israel, the focus of the opposition to women in army service in recent weeks has centered on religious fears that contact between genders will lead to moral corruption. Essentially, it’s all about sex, though in the discussions and political debates, the word is cloaked in every euphemism possible, accompanied by unsubtle references to the increased consumption of army-issued condoms in mixed-gender combat units. 

It wasn’t the first time strong words have gotten Levinstein into hot water. He previously stirred controversy by calling gays in the IDF “perverts” and “deviants” and decrying army programs for educating about and promoting sensitivity on LGBT issues.

The backlash against the latest Levinstein video found political expression in an ultimatum laid down by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman: If Levinstein doesn’t resign, he said, the pre-military academy he heads will lose the army funding that supports it.

The rabbi’s “inexcusable” words were “indicative of both a desire to provoke and agitate, and also a loss of common sense," Lieberman said. "I don’t know which one is worse between the two.” He noted that he was offended not only as defense minister, but also as the father of an Orthodox daughter who served in the IDF and came out physically and spiritually unscathed.

Lieberman’s threat to oust Levinstein has caused the right wing of the religious camp to circle the wagons in his defense. Those attacking Lieberman included Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has, in the past, defended women serving in the army. Lieberman, in turn, accused Bennett for wanting to turn Israel “into Iran.” 

Eliyahu Hershkowitz

On Sunday, Zalman Melamed, the rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, raised the tone further in a Q&A on a website, when he was asked whether it was permissible for religious male soldiers to command combat units that included women. He made it clear that doing so was, literally, unkosher. “It is absolutely forbidden for men and women to serve together in the same unit. And it is more of an abomination to do so than to eat pork or shrimp,” he said.

The sharpening rhetoric isn’t a sign of the rabbis’ strength. On the contrary, it reflects their weakness and the feeling that their influence is ebbing by the day. Over the past decade, a steadily growing tide of Orthodox young women have resisted the entreaties of rabbinical leaders – including the country’s chief rabbis – and have chosen to serve in the army, despite the fact that most Orthodox frameworks encourage them to enter non-military national service instead. Traditionally, and as recently as a decade ago, only a small minority of Orthodox women selected to serve in the army. Most took the automatic exemption offered to religious women, and enrolled in national service instead.

Today, more than a third of Orthodox girls are choosing the military. That number has risen 10 percent in each of the past five years. Many young women are highly motivated by the nationalist and Zionist messages they hear in their youth Scout groups and society at large and decide they want to serve. The IDF has encouraged the trend, happy for the high-quality manpower; they bend over backward to create positions in intelligence and education units that accommodate female religious lifestyles. It has had a ripple effect: As more Orthodox women have positive experiences in the army, they bring encouraging messages back to their communities and their own daughters. The rising tide has spawned a network of pre-army programs specifically designed for religious girls heading to the army.

Among the ultra-Orthodox sectors, the position has been simple and consistent: Both men and women are educated and encouraged to stay away from the army. 

It is in the national Zionist sector, where army service by men is a central value and source of identity and pride, that the conflict is roiling. Most rightward leaning and even mainstream Orthodox rabbis remain opposed to female service, and have been actively pushing back against the trend. In January, a widely distributed cartoon posted to YouTube targeted girls in their final years of study at religious Zionist high schools, delivering the message that in the army, these young women will be hard-put to observe religious laws, especially those restricting physical contact with members of the opposite sex.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

And physical contact is really what it’s all about. 

The fear of members of the opposite sex touching each other has even the more moderate rabbis worried. They piggybacked on the Levinstein controversy to air their complaints about the growing number of combat units that incorporate both genders and the IDF’s plans to expand them in the future. Four years ago, only 3 percent of the women in the IDF served in combat roles, mainly infantry patrolling the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. In 2016, the number rose to 7 percent and is expected to climb to 8 percent next year. The army is also openly exploring the possibility of allowing women to serve in armored units and on warships as well. 

But combat units train in the field in close quarters, and their drills inevitably involve lifting and carrying fellow soldiers – and touching can’t be avoided when training for actual battle. This has made the parts of Orthodox society who enthusiastically back female service in intelligence or the education corps think twice when it comes to combat service – for Orthodox men as well as women. The director of Tzohar, Rabbi David Stav, spoke out against it, saying that Orthodox leaders were "asking the IDF to allow every boy and girl to serve in a permissible unit according to Jewish law and not in places where serious Jewish legal questions arise, which can lead to a situation where something is forbidden by religious law. There are certain situations where physical proximity and intimacy occur and that is forbidden. The IDF needs to make every effort to allow boys and girls to serve according to Jewish law and religious belief." 

Absurd as the idea of erotic thoughts on the battlefield may be, it’s one that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has to take seriously. He is already walking a tightrope when it comes to balancing religious strictures with equal opportunities for women. Last September, he gave in to pressure from rabbis when he issued an order allowing Orthodox male soldiers to request exemption from guard duty with a female soldier or riding alone with a woman in a vehicle. It was feared that this would hurt women’s advancement and equal status in the military they are required to serve. The latest verbal political clashes will only heighten the tensions between the best interests of the two sources of soldiers – the Orthodox and women – neither of whom the IDF, with the ever-increasing number of threats it faces, can afford to lose.

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