Religion in the IDF / Army Needs Consistent Policy to Avoid Offending Sensibilities

Four religious cadets were ousted from officer candidate school for refusing to listen to women singing.

The growing conflict over the role of religion in the Israel Defense Forces caused another mass-casualty incident this week: Four religious cadets were ousted from officer candidate school (known in Hebrew as Bahad 1 ) for refusing to listen to women singing; five others who were slated to be ousted were reinstated after apologizing; rabbis issued a condemnatory letter; and the IDF once again found itself, against its will, in the thick of Israel's culture wars.

A recent clarification of the army's rules on women singing at ceremonies did not prevent the incident. That may be proof that it needs a comprehensive policy.

The current course for infantry officers has 223 cadets, of whom 93, or 41 percent, are religious. On Tuesday evening, the course held a seminar on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008. Most of it consisted of lectures on the operation's lessons, but an Education Corps troupe containing two male and two female vocalists performed as well.

After several religious cadets were ousted last November for refusing to listen to women sing at a ceremony, the IDF Rabbinate, the Education Corps and Bahad 1 tried to forge a compromise to prevent further such incidents. The agreement, approved by IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz, adopted the view that the religious prohibition on men listening to women sing applies only to all-women troupes and not to music sung by men and women together. Hence religious cadets may not boycott the latter.

For 10 months, the compromise seemed to work. But before Tuesday's event, two religious cadets told their superiors they intended to walk out, and despite being explicitly ordered to remain, they in fact did so. A group of almost 30 others then stood up to follow them.

Their battalion commander tried to block them, warning that leaving would constitute disobeying an order, and in the end, most stayed. But seven joined the first two in leaving.

On Wednesday, the nine were summoned to a hearing before Bahad 1's commander, Col. Eran Niv. Niv decided to expel both the first two to leave and two others who refused to express regret. The other five were allowed to stay, both because they expressed regret and because, in some cases, it wasn't clear they realized that leaving would amount to disobeying an order.

Unsurprisingly, a battle over the rule's proper interpretation then erupted. Army regulations state that a soldier is not obliged to participate in cultural activities that offend his sensibilities. Bahad 1 viewed Tuesday's event as a mandatory professional seminar. But the rabbis argued that the choral part of the evening was a cultural event, so the cadets should have been allowed to leave.

Niv's view, however, is that "orders must be obeyed, period," as discipline is the bedrock of all military activity. The cadets were entitled to appeal to their commanders, but the minute they were explicitly told to stay, they had to do so.

Yet Bahad 1 officers also acknowledged that the situation was not properly explained to the cadets beforehand, setting the stage for conflict.

Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the leaders of the association of hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah study with army service ), termed the cadets' expulsions "outrageous," saying nowhere in the army's rulebook does it say soldiers have to listen to women singing. Yet he took a more moderate stance after last November's incident.

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz recently ordered the head of the IDF's personnel directorate, Orna Barbivay, to work on resolving the issue of religion in the IDF.

But it seems that ad hoc compromises are no longer enough: The army will have to set a clear, comprehensive policy.