A Woman’s Place Can Be in Combat

21 March 2018

“The army has adopted a crazy feminist agenda.”

“Men and women serving together has led to insanity in the army.”

“Until there is complete separation between men and women in the IDF—it is forbidden to enlist.”

These incendiary comments and many others have made the news in Israel, as part of a reactionary offensive by some religious leaders against the expansion of women’s roles in the army. Expressed by rabbis representing some of the ultra-Orthodox – who oppose both male and female enlistment for their sector – these statements have been amplified by some rabbis from the national-religious stream.

“In the last couple of years, we have witnessed acute attacks of religious and political leaders on women’s service, and specifically male-female joint service,” said Michal Gera-Margalit, director of the Israel Women’s Network. “We receive complaints with cases where female soldiers are banned from going into certain areas in their bases, gender-based separation has become much more widespread, and female soldiers are required to dress ‘modestly.’ The result is that women cannot do the job they have been trained to do, and in some cases, are left without a significant position in the army just because they are women.”

“This is a watershed moment in Israeli society and we plan to continue to stand with all women, defend our right to be present in all spheres, and protect Israeli democracy.”

The Israel Women’s Network (IWN) was seed-funded by the New Israel Fund in 1984 and has long been the most broad-based feminist organization in Israel. Now, it is quickly organizing to push back against exclusion of women in the army, as well as in universities and other institutions where gender segregation is increasing to placate religious participants. The IWN received an emergency grant from NIF in January to open a telephone hotline for reports of this phenomenon, to engage in advocacy efforts, and to file two High Court petitions against government ministries that run gender-segregated training courses.

Another NIF grantee, the Secular Forum, which has been working against religious indoctrination in the public schools, has also received an NIF grant to expand its activities to religious intrusion in the army.

The most recent manifestation of the trend against women serving came on International Women’s Day on March 8, when rabbinical pressure resulted in the Israeli Air Force taking down a video from the social media that celebrated women’s service. The Air Force claimed it removed the video because it didn’t go through proper approval channels, but some of the footage is still available in a report from the Haaretz newspaper.

“Two societal trends are meeting head-on,” said NIF’s Associate Director for Grants, Yuval Yavneh, who oversees NIF’s grant-making to religious-pluralism organizations. “On the one hand, the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers is increasing, and their leadership demands that these soldiers serve in environments where no women are present. On the other hand, the number of female combat soldiers in the IDF is five times what it was six years ago as positions in combat battalions, including combat intelligence and artillery, have opened to women.”