Despite Integration Promise, Women Still Marginalized in Israeli Military Rabbinate

Female soldiers have been allowed to serve as kashrut inspectors in the IDF since 2014, so why has no woman been appointed to the role?

Female soldiers in the Israeli army.
Nir Kafri

The recent appointment of the new chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Col. Eyal Karim, stirred a public furor because of his offensive remarks in the past about women. It now emerges that, despite various efforts, the situation of women within the military rabbinate itself is not terrific: In that corps, which was founded in May 1948 to serve as a liaison between observant soldiers and the army, 90 percent of the soldiers and officers are men. There are only two women officers in the rabbinate, both of them at a junior level, while a handful of women serve as noncoms in technical and educational positions.

“If you visit IDF rabbinate headquarters, or any of our bases across the country, you’re unlikely to encounter a female soldier or officer,” I was told by Kobi, a senior officer in the military rabbinate. “It’s always been that way,” he added. Integration of women into its ranks, he adds, is “a very slow process, and difficult to digest, both in the army and outside it.”

“Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the recruitment of religiously observant women, from 953 in 2010 to 2,159 in 2015. Shouldn’t that increase be reflected in the military rabbinate’s attitude toward women?” asks Prof. Orna Sasson-Levy, who heads the sociology and anthropology department at Bar-Ilan University, and who studies army and gender issues. “Precisely to sustain female soldiers’ religious life in the army framework,” she adds, “there should be women whom they can relate to as role models and authority figures in the military rabbinate, too.”

In the past, the IDF made efforts to make the rabbinate more open to women. “There have been several operative attempts to integrate women into the military rabbinate, but in the meantime without much success,” Kobi notes.

In 2014, for example, the IDF rabbinate decided, in an unusual move, to allow women to serve as “kashrut coordinators and inspectors” in army kitchens and dining facilities. But even though two years have passed, not one woman has been appointed to that post. According to the IDF, this is not because the army hasn’t publicized the job or encouraged women to serve in it, but simply because no one has shown an interest in it.

“Religiously observant women aren’t eager to serve in that capacity, either in civilian life or in the army,” Kobi explains. “Apparently it’s due to some deeply rooted cultural norms, and the aspirations of the establishment involved make no difference.”

Still, the civilian Chief Rabbinate seems to have had greater success in this regard. In 2014, its council decided that it would allow woman to take exams in order to be kashrut inspectors. About 15 women did so, and most are now employed by religious councils throughout the country. So what accounts for the disparity between the military and the civilian realms?

“The IDF shows great consideration for the sensitivities of religiously observant male soldiers, but less so when it comes to female soldiers,” says Col. (res.) Pnina Sharvit Baruch, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a board member of the Dvorah Forum, an organization dedicated to advancing the participation of women in the fields of diplomacy and national security.

“The point of departure – the assumption that religious men have a problem with the presence of women – is accepted without being examined in depth,” Baruch explains. “After all, it’s not that there is no interaction between men and women in civilian life. You see it in medical clinics, in service provided in stores. Does an ultra-Orthodox man think that all the female employees in his place of work should be fired? The military rabbinate, which is supposed to – and wants to – lead a dialogue of bringing people together, could actually be a key element in terms of the attitude toward women. If they are so intent on acting as a bridge, let them start in their own ranks.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated in response: “The IDF is working to integrate women in a range of meaningful positions, including in the military rabbinate. The position of kashrut inspector was made available to women two years ago but has not yet been staffed due to a lack of response by female candidates for defense service.”