Analysis

Israeli Army's Progressive Attitude Toward Women Prompts Dark Thoughts Among Ex-generals

The IDF has adopted an extremely cautious approach over its plans to integrate female soldiers into combat roles, which makes the reaction to its actions even more infuriating.

An Israeli female soldier from a mixed-gender battalion takes part in a drill in northern Israel, September 13, 2016.
Jack Guez, AFP

The Israel Defense Forces’ plan to consider the integration of female combat soldiers into the Armored Corps unexpectedly sparked a wave of inflammatory statements this week – against women in general, and female combat soldiers in particular.

Gili Cohen’s report in Haaretz (“Army rebuffs hostility to women in combat roles,” November 22) quickly snowballed into a confrontation between the general staff and the rabbis, with several retired senior officers lining up alongside the rabbis, too.

Over the past several months, the IDF has been trying to tread very carefully in its interactions with the religious public. These relations were already strained under Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot due to his decision to remove “Jewish consciousness” from the responsibility of the Military Rabbinate, and the overblown reaction to some insensitive enforcement of the rules regarding soldiers’ beards.

The army made conciliatory efforts – including the cautious formulation of the joint service command; the suspension of tenders for outsourcing educational activity (which aroused the ire of rightists due to the involvement of liberal and left-leaning organizations); and insisting on the appointment of Col. Eyal Krim as chief military rabbi, despite his history of extreme statements.

None of this was any help in the present matter. For days, Eisenkot has been on the receiving end of some very harsh criticism. He is being warned against offending religious soldiers’ modesty, and told that integrating female soldiers in the Armored Corps would adversely affect the corps’ operations.

This time, though, the IDF is responding aggressively to its critics. For one thing, senior female combat officers were sent to be interviewed for a major article in Yedioth Ahronoth. In it, they refuted the arguments about how the quality of the IDF’s performance would be harmed.

The chief of staff’s response was likely motivated in part by pressure from the female officers themselves, or perhaps from the families of the generals. The outcry against the women soldiers had indeed crossed all boundaries of good taste.

It is certainly possible, and appropriate, to debate whether there should be limits on the integration of women into the various combat units. Not everything that worked well on pilots or naval officers’ courses, or in the artillery and air defense, will necessarily work as well in offensive units (the infantry brigades, armored forces and special forces). The physiological demands of each role are different, and it may be harder to recruit a large enough number of women who meet these demands in order to justify the investment in it.

But the kind of wild reaction that has occurred this week goes way beyond reasonable discussion. It almost feels as if women in uniform have come to be seen as a legitimate target for attack, with retired senior officers and rabbis vying with each other over who can make the most misogynistic and disparaging comments.

It’s hard to say precisely which responses were the most infuriating, though the preoccupation with sexually focused issues by two kippa-wearing former generals were probably the most embarrassing.

We heard all manner of things, some of them truly repulsive. Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, awarded the Medal of Valor for his actions during the Yom Kippur War, explained that the war experience would prevent women from having children – their true role, of course. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yiftah Ron-Tal, meanwhile, accused leftist organizations of a plot to weaken the IDF by putting women in combat units (he later issued a feeble retraction).

Former military chief rabbi Brig. Gen. (res.) Israel Weiss warned that after nine months in a coed tank, “a little tank soldier would be born.” And Col. (res.) Yonatan Branski went so far as to say that whenever the mixed Caracal Battalion goes to its training base, “all the birth control sells out at the base canteen.” Branski, who was the first commander of the Netzah Yehuda (aka Nahal Haredi) Battalion, did not offer any proof to back up his claim.

The surprising thing is that all these outbursts are coming in response to something in which the IDF is adopting a very careful approach. At this point, remember, the IDF is only examining the possibility of a future project in the Armored Corps.

The army has explained three things: There would not be mixed tanks, but rather separate tanks for men and women (each tank has a four-person crew); they would continue to honor the request of a religious conscript (though not someone who has signed on for the regular army) not to serve in a mixed battalion; and the idea is for the female tank crews to be deployed on the borders, and not to be part of battalions designated to operate in enemy territory.

This sounds like a reasonable policy, a plan for gradual progression that will be reexamined at every step along the way. Even so, it still managed to stir up all sorts of untoward thoughts in the hearts of some retired senior officers.