Opinion

The 'Pious' Men and 'Dangerous' Women of the Israeli Army

It is women who pay the price for the Israel Defense Forces' increasing gender segregation and modesty

Israeli soldiers.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A recent skit on the Channel 2 satirical program “A Wonderful Country” depicted a combat soldier boasting to a buddy about his acts of bravery. But no sooner does he enter his tent when he comes hurtling out again as if he’d been bitten by a snake. “Girl! Girl!” he shouts in horror. He and his buddy summon help and beg for logistical reinforcements. 

That scene, however exaggerated and unrealistic it may seem, reflects the current direction being taken by the Israel Defense Forces. It is a trend that contradicts another process in which the IDF has been seriously engaged for the past two decades: the integration of women. At best, the army does not grasp how deeply at odds these two trends are. At worst, it is in denial and is convinced that the move toward integration will triumph – not so much because of an ethical commitment to gender equality, but rather because its operational need of female soldiers.

Anyone who thinks it is possible to integrate one group while empathizing with the demands of another group to restrain, shun and anathematize the former, has a lot to learn about the sociology of organizations. Female soldiers are becoming a burden because of the problems of determining their assignments and routine duties – which requires onerous accommodations related to their contact with religiously observant male soldiers. These new conventions will thwart, and in large measure are already thwarting, the prospects that female soldiers will be able to serve under conditions that preserve their dignity and that offer them roles that maximize their qualifications, worth and skills. 

The arrangements set out in the army’s regulations to meet the demands of the country’s religious leadership – and the broad, stringent interpretation given to those directives in individual units – are adversely affecting female soldiers and will ultimately be injurious to women in Israeli society as a whole.

The current public discussion is not about women’s participation in pilots’ courses, tank units or the navy. The forces that are seeking to tighten the grip of the national-religious public on the IDF by imposing extreme rules of modesty and gender segregation are the ones that are diverting the public’s attention to the narrow issue of women’s combat service – thereby shifting public awareness away from the change that is quietly taking place in the IDF, in the rear units and in everyday practice. 

Addressing the price being paid by women for the adjustments the army is making to accommodate religiously observant soldiers does not necessitate supporting young Israeli women’s ambition to serve in combat posts (an understandable ambition, though it invokes gloomy thoughts about why their aspirations for equality are focused on the army, of all places). 

The current discussion is of a different nature. The new accommodations for religious soldiers affect female soldiers in rear-guard units no less than they do those on the front lines. Anyone who thinks that the basic freedoms of every young woman who is drafted by law deserve protection, cannot but be concerned by the emerging situation in the IDF, no matter what one’s position is about women in combat roles. 

The Joint Service Ordinance sets out the conditions under which religiously observant male soldiers can request not to serve with women or be required to listen to women singing, for example, and it outlines the basic requirements for the living quarters of male and female soldiers. It also states that a male soldier who declares that because he leads a religiously observant way of life he may not take part in coed activities that might involve seeing women in immodest attire, or being alone with a woman, or physical contact with a woman, is entitled to serve in a segregated, male-only unit. 

For five years, the draft of the ordinance waited in a drawer, written but not issued. When Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot put it into effect last year, this was considered in the army to be an act of moral courage, signifying commitment to pluralism and equality. Despite its restrictions on women and the impediments on their equality, the ordinance was considered, mainly by Israel’s religious leadership, as failing to provide sufficient protection for observant soldiers. Superseding a 2002 directive on the same subject, the new ordinance is considered problematic because the rabbis of the religious-Zionist movement think it does not sufficiently protect the modesty, purity of heart and actions of religiously observant soldiers. 

Outraged rabbis

Rabbis are outraged, for example, by the fact that male officers and NCOs are denied the right that rank-and-file soldiers are granted: of not having to serve alongside female soldiers. Also in the rabbis’ view, the criteria that determine when an army unit is allowed to establish a separate all-male unit are too narrow. They think that the mitigating rules concerning separate quarters in an emergency situation are too broad. They believe that the strictures concerning segregation and modesty are ignored in the field.

And the IDF is listening. Within months of the ordinance being issued, it was reported that leading religious Zionism rabbis found the chief of staff attentive and that he was considering applying the directives to NCOs and officers, too. Even if Eisenkot refuses to do so, the whole idea is astonishing, as it seeks to create an army where officers will be able to demand that no women be under their command. 

Every few months, delegations of rabbis go on a pilgrimage to the chief of staff – and that’s if you count only the meetings reported by the media. The rabbis’ tone in their press statements after these meetings is unvarying, and goes something like: “We were impressed by the chief of staff’s commitment to the unity of the nation. We will consider placing our trust in the IDF, but we have good reason to be hurt and suspicious, and the burden of proof rests with the army.” Objections to the new regulations emanate almost exclusively from the religious direction. The greater public seems untroubled, or at least unaware, of the creeping threats to women’s service conditions, and it fails to present counter-pressures that would support the military’s attempts to restraint religious demands. 

The Joint Service Ordinance does not define the sort of potential physical contact that may entitle a male soldier to be segregated from women. As with so many other laws, the real significance of the regulations emerges through their interpretation in practice. And the interpretation today is religiously stringent in nature and becoming more and more so, the more the rabbis exert pressure and the more the public’s silence and apathy persist. This, incidentally, is the same public that sends its daughters to serve in the IDF believing that they are being entrusted to commanding officers worthy of the task of seeing to their wellbeing and their equal status. 

Although the directives in question do not refer to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, whose leaders permit them military service only if it is “sterile of women,” the IDF now interprets even the act of passing a duffel bag along a human chain at the National Induction Center as entailing the threat of physical contact. During induction of Haredim, the female soldiers serving at the center are sent outside; moreover, they are not allowed on transportation carrying Haredi soldiers (who of course are all males). This is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The ordinance grants soldiers the right to absent themselves from military ceremonies (other than state ceremonies) if they include performances by women singers. According to testimonies, in many units female soldiers are forbidden to take part in sing-alongs, even if they are only in the audience. But that sort of silencing was not even mentioned in the discussions about the rules in the General Staff. No one imagined such a possibility. 

With the atmosphere in the army one of ever greater stringency in the direction of modesty, with no one worrying about the potential injurious effect on female soldiers, there is no one to stand in the way of this deterioration. The same holds for women’s singing on a stage. A highly developed imagination is not required for one to guess just how many female singers are invited these days to perform before soldiers, whether at ceremonies or cultural events. If the presence of female soldiers on the stage is an organizational headache, the culture NCO or education officer will simply not invite them.

Dangerous women

There are increasing indications that female soldiers in the IDF are being gauged according to capricious and ever-stricter rules of modesty. Unlike their male colleagues, female soldiers are not allowed to wear shorts during athletic training. One young woman told me about her most intense memory from basic training: As she and others in her unit were showering after an arduous day, they were ordered to put their dirty pants back on, because religious soldiers had arrived on the base and could not be exposed to the female soldiers’ seductive knees as they made their way from the showers to their quarters.

Occurrences like this give rise to troubling reflections about the religiously observant soldier as framed by the gender-related directives. This is a soldier whose values, belief system and self-control are deemed to be so fragile that he has to be saved from himself by preventing every danger of impure thoughts – at the expense of women’s freedom. The language of the ordinance backs this imagined perception, as it constitutes pious men and dangerous women. 

To illustrate, here’s one provision: “Before being assigned to professional training, every soldier will be asked, as early on as possible, whether, because of his religious way of life, anything prevents him from being integrated into a non-gendered framework [i.e., a coed unit], or from being present at instruction given by a member of the opposite sex and where there is concern of physical contact, seclusion [with a female soldier] or revealing attire. A soldier who leads a religious way of life is entitled to training in a gendered framework [i.e., male-only] and to instruction from an instructor of his sex in situations where there is concern of physical contact, seclusion or revealing attire.”

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Today’s IDF is an organization in which it is compulsory to ask every male soldier whether he is willing to hear instructions by a woman or alongside women. The ordinance creates an optical illusion: that it has no real effect on female soldiers, because it simply allows religiously observant male soldiers to move aside. But it is women who pay the price of this segregation. In practice, it is the female soldiers who are anathematized. 

Moreover, in addition to becoming a logistical burden because of the need to allow male soldiers to participate in segregated activities, the regulations also make their female counterparts into a budgetary burden: The army must provide soldiers who so wish with a male instructor (or exempt them from instruction, if their number is small), and an extra instructor costs money. The costs of complying with these rules devolve on the unit and not on the IDF’s general budget. How many years will it take before the units understand that, with all their commitment to equality and their esteem for the female instructors’ professionalism, it is simply too expensive to budget for two instructors instead of a single male one?

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the segregation and the modesty being imposed have the effect of protecting female soldiers. Less exposed skin means, ostensibly, less objectification of a woman’s body; less activity involving contact or seclusion with a woman means fewer situations with the possibility of unwanted intimacy. But that would be an erroneous conclusion. It is important to set norms to protect female soldiers from unwanted contact or violation of privacy, and there is no reason to long for the military culture prior to its reform on fighting sexual harassment. 

The regulations pertaining to modesty and segregation remind female soldiers and those around them that they are first of all sexual beings who are gauged by their seductive body. That is not the way to preserve a sense of self-esteem, create a culture of equal opportunities or protect against sexual offenses. And by the way, religiously observant soldiers can also request and receive exemptions from taking part in talks about prevention of sexual harassment, on the grounds that their content is not modest.

Every new recruit of either gender can declaim the ban on hugging someone else in the army. In fact, the ordinance does not forbid hugging, but that’s how it’s being interpreted. That’s its spirit, if not its language. Every human contact is interpreted as being sexually charged. Soldiers are punished today for expressing affection and warmth. 

Haim Gouri once wrote, in the poem “Friendship,” “Friendship, we carried you without words.” Not anymore.

Dr. Yofi Tirosh is a senior lecturer in Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and a board member of the Israel Women’s Network.