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Why Can't a Female Soldier’s Voice Be Heard at the Western Wall?

Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess
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An IDF soldier at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in 2014.
An IDF soldier at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess

If I were IDF chief of staff, I would long ago have called in the head of the Manpower Directorate and the chief education officer to hear from them, firsthand, the findings of their inquiry after a female officer was barred from officiating at a Givati Brigade swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last week. I would have taken a few minutes to think, thanked them and asked them to wait a few hours while I drafted an order of the day for all IDF units.

If I were chief of staff – especially the incumbent, whose eloquent speeches, particularly at the Western Wall for Memorial Day, resonate so well, I would write the order myself. As in my speeches, I would allude to both the Bible and Hebrew poetry. I would reference the prophets Deborah and Miriam, as well as Hannah Szenes, Yael Rom and Tamar Ariel. I would speak of fellowship that needs no words and ignores gender. I would specify, in honor of the last year of my term and of all the IDF commanders to follow, that female service members, like male service members, have a right to dignity and equality.

What happened at the Kotel last week, shortly before the ceremony, was no accident. The hitch, as the Western Wall Heritage Foundation sees it, is that the matter was leaked to the media. Usually they settle such matters with a wink; in an unofficial conversation with the brigade rabbi or one of “our” officers. They say it “doesn’t belong.” It “doesn’t belong” for a woman to host a ceremony at the Kotel.

When, a few years ago, religious officer cadets walked out of a ceremony at Training Base 1 officers school when female soldiers sang, some called for leniency: It was a religious matter, not a military one. Their rabbi ruled that because the ban in halakha, Jewish religious law (according to strict Orthodox interpretations) on men hearing women singing does not end at the army-base gate, it must be observed.

This faulty argument, which Haredi Zionist organizations are trying to make the norm, is not only false but also dangerous. It is false because the halakhic perspective requires a thousand and one adjustments to modern life. The beauty of halakha is its ability to be strict in its flexibility. When the rabbis will it, a halakhic solution can be found. But this argument is also dangerous, because if the public sphere is not egalitarian, it deprives half the population of the right to live in dignity. The public sphere (the street, the stage, the academic world, the labor market and the army), where women do not have equal standing is a step backward not only for women, but for all humanity. Women have been excluded from positions of power and influence for long enough. Humanity has been held back for long enough because half the population – that is, half of human thinking power – was not given the possibility of joining the efforts to make the world a better place. In the name of what interest, what minority, are we prepared to go so far backward?

But these are big questions, and the chief of staff’s order of the day must be concrete. The IDF’s order on coed service can help the chief of staff to clarify fundamental concepts: “The policy of joint service is intended to fulfill the operational objective of the IDF and maintain the cohesion of the military framework, and it is based on the IDF being the army of the Jewish and democratic state – and the idea of the army of the people, by which soldiers of all genders, religions and communities serve in the IDF. This policy came about out of an official, egalitarian and tolerant concept, enshrined in the values of human dignity and the spirit of the IDF.”

The Western Wall Plaza is not the private property of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation; it is a national site. An IDF swearing-in ceremony is not a religious ceremony. The Bible verses it includes, although I would have selected different ones, have become a permanent part of it. They have become tradition. The military rabbi who reads them at every ceremony respects the rules of the ceremony. Thus precisely would I determine that there be no ceremony in the IDF in which men and women, male and female soldiers do not take roles. I would leave it to the commander to determine the numbers and context. The commanders of the IDF should be relied on, but the commander-in-chief must set boundaries and the essential principle.

The Western Wall Plaza is not the Vatican courtyard. The state is the sovereign and in military ceremonies the chief of staff is sovereign. If I were chief of staff, I would not make do with the investigation that took place. I would come to the next ceremony at the Kotel, and support the female education officer, and see to it that a male and a female soldier stand together on the podium and sing “Hatikva.” Believe it or not, that has not yet happened there.

Yizhar Hess is vice chair of the World Zionist Organization.

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