Must Be a Joke: An Israeli Soldier Who Can’t Look at a Woman

The country needs a new approach so that a male soldier can look straight in the eye not only of a female paratroop instructor but also of those who try to impose their religious, conservative and fanatical nationalist customs

Alit Karp
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Soldiers on an exercise in the Goland Heights, August 2018.
Soldiers on an exercise in the Goland Heights, August 2018. Credit: Rami Shllush
Alit Karp

I tend to ignore most of the stories about religious-Zionist soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. To tell the truth, we could have treated the latest story like a bad joke, the one about the 30 paratroop trainees who turned their backs on their female instructor and ignored her orders.

It should have been one of those IDF urban myths and nothing more. The group should have been told that anyone who didn’t look straight at the female commander would face a court martial. Instead, a male instructor let some of them lower their heads. That provided the opening for some offensive behavior.

How exactly does lowering one’s head reduce the degree of abomination, libido or I-don’t-know-what with these guys when they see young women? Only God knows.

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It’s true that the IDF spokesman said the male instructor had erred, but there’s no doubt that this behavior is more than a sign of the emptiness our society finds itself in. It’s also a sign of where society is headed.

First, religious Israelis are filled with a sense of mission under which they must pour their values onto secular people’s empty void. Second, secular people are willing to accept all sorts of idiotic religious whims. My Haaretz colleague Uri Misgav has already weighed in on this mechanism in the IDF. A sense of concession and surrender is what caused the instructor to commit this error of judgment.

This situation stems from the fact that Israel has failed to make clear that the relationship between individuals and their God is a private matter. The sources of this failure are first and foremost the way religion grips the country and keeps spreading into different realms.

The moment a separation of religion and state is forged – when the law is official rather than religious and when it’s possible to study Jewish law at university without referring to it as the law, because it’s not relevant to the world we live in – we'll have a good foundation for the future.

Another failure of Israeli society is the attempt to inject meaning into secular life. Once we tried to do that on the kibbutzim. Holidays were celebrated out of a sense of a connection to Judaism, but also out of a sense of connection to the country, language and nationality. With the decline of the kibbutz movement, this small corner has disappeared, and the way we celebrate Israel’s sole secular holiday, Independence Day, reflects the emptiness of Israeli society.

If Israel’s secular society really wants to survive, it must take action on two levels. First, separate religion and state – even before ending the occupation, even if this sounds like a dream. Second, try to forge a secular day-to-day culture that belongs to everyone, not just people fond of culture and the arts.

It would be a culture that holds the Hebrew language in high regard, one that seeks a role for the Jewish people among other peoples and not as superior to other peoples, one that stresses that a human being is above all a human being. This of course is supposed to be the role of the education system, which alas is in the hands of politicians doing exactly the opposite.

An example of such a program could be the way the bar mitzvah year is marked. A 13-year-old would choose a volunteer project that would last through high school, not just the bar mitzvah year. The idea would be to consider what one can do for society and feel a sense of belonging.

A student who feels he contributes to society and meets with other communities beyond the ones he’s born into can as a soldier look straight into the eye not only of a female paratroop instructor but also of those who try to impose their religious, conservative and fanatical nationalist customs. This person would turn his back on these types, not on a female instructor.

Such a youth wouldn’t bow his head to the threats of Jewish religion, because he would know that his own values are no less important, and in many cases are even more important. As a result, he’d be much less likely to listen to the words of arrogance and folly heard at pre-military programs and other places where the head-bowers and back-turners come from.