As the Israeli Army Becomes More Religious, Women Are the Casualties

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 11 2012 9:30 AM

No Touching

As Israel’s military becomes more religious, women are having a really hard time showing men how to hold a rifle.

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These situations are not confined to the army. An increasingly fundamentalist religious public in Israel seems to be discovering new gender rules every day. In the most radical circles, religious men and women are not allowed to sit next to each other on the bus, stand on the same line in the supermarket, or sit in the same room at weddings, and in some cases they even have separate rooms for family meals. Although these practices are sometimes said to be followed by only a small, fringe of Israeli society, this fringe is a very powerful one, politically. And it’s also the exact demographic that has benefitted from a regulation called the Tal Law, which has, since 1949, exempted ultra-Orthodox men from army service, allowing them instead to be full-time students of Torah.

Today, some 100,000 men are exempted under this law, with only 2,500 ultra-Orthodox men currently serving in the army. But the Tal Law expired in August, and the government is currently scrambling to figure out what to do with these men now.  “There are many groups with an interest in recruiting ultra-Orthodox men into the army,” explained Hadass Ben-Eliyahu of the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Institute. “Beyond the Tal Law, there are strong economic, political, religious, military, social, and cultural pressures relating to [getting] ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF.” These pressures mainly come from secular Israelis, who are angry that the ultra-Orthodox are not required to contribute to Israel’s national security, and from academics who believe that Israeli society will never improve if the Orthodox community remains cordoned off. On the other side, rabbis argue that, by studying Torah, these men are preserving the Jewish identity of the state, its own form of national security, and that any forced assimilation will be disastrous for the religious community. In national polls, popular opinion is on the side of drafting the ultra-Orthodox men. But if this happens—if these ultra-religious men are to become fully integrated into the army—it’s women who are likely to suffer.

Consider these events from just the past few years, as the radicalization of the religious community has grown: Current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger—who, it is worth noting, was investigated for complaints of sexual harassment—came out in favor of religious soldiers being excused from duties that may require them to hear women singing or other unwanted activities. Last year, several male soldiers walked out of events where women soldiers were speaking, sparking a public crisis in which Lt. Col. Ram Moshe Ravad asked to leave his post as chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force because the IDF would not excuse religious soldiers from official army events that feature female soldiers singing. This religious radicalization is undoubtedly affecting army culture, as Boianjiu experienced.  According to Brig. Gen. Zeev Lehrer, who served on the chief of staff’s panel of the integration of women, “There is a clear process of ‘religionization’ in the army, and the story of the women is a central piece of it. There are very strong pressures at work to halt the process of integrating women into the army, and they are coming from the direction of religion.”

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Ben-Eliyahu agrees: “It is clear that the more religious men serve, the more of gender segregation command we will see,” she told me. “By command, I mean not only separate units, but also separate tasks, what kinds of jobs are open, entire units or structures that are closed to women.”

The radicalization of religious thought and practice in Israel, which finds expression most emphatically in the increased calls for women’s invisibility in public spaces throughout Israel, is now deeply threatening the advancements women have made in the army.  This is especially significant in a country that assigns the highest personal status—for better or worse—according to military achievements. The expiration of the Tal Law is timed disastrously for Israeli women, who are trying their hardest to get ahead in a man’s world as that man’s world becomes more and more a religious man’s world.

One thing that can be done: The IDF and the Israeli government must legislate commitment to the basic rights of women regardless of pressures from religious groups: the right to speak, the right to sing, the right to stay in a room when religious men enter, and serve in units where religious men serve. As for the ultra-Orthodox: The army doesn’t need to beg them to join. It already has a whole cadre of soldiers who are ready, willing and able to serve—women. So, protect them.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the author of The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World and interim executive director of JOFA: The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

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