Religious leaders attack IDF on the gender battlefield

A year ago, when Maj.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israel Defense Force's chief of general staff, declared his commitment to integrating women into combat and high-tech units, he inadvertently opened another front in the ongoing battle between the religious-Zionist and feminist camps.

Feminists such as Knesset members Yael Dayan, chairwoman of the Knesset Committee of the Advancement of the Status of Women, and Naomi Chazan were pleased. Chazan is convinced that equality in the military is a crucial step towards women's equality in every aspect of civilian life.

In March 2000, the bill she sponsored opening all military positions equally to men and women passed into law.

But Knesset members from the National Religious Party and rabbis from the religious-Zionist military schools and pre-military yeshivot were outraged. In integrated combat units, men and women would have to interact physically in close quarters. This will force both men and the women to violate halachic principles of n'gia (touching between the sexes) and religious norms of modesty.

"This is a disaster!" said Knesset member Nahoum Langental of the National Religious Party. "Mixed combat units will lead to the destruction of the moral fiber of the IDF, and religious men will not be able to serve in a morally corrupt army."

Women serving in combat units are not new in Israel. During the War of Independence and in the early days of the state, women even served as combat pilots and crossed into enemy lines. But over the years, military custom and social norms excluded women from combat positions and from most senior military roles.

According to Dafna Izraeli, professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University, the military has developed a rigid gender division of labor, according to which women are seen as the helpmates of men. "In the IDF," Izraeli said, "the men served the nation, and the women served the men."

Over the last decade, the army has gradually begun to open combat positions to women. Women serve as instructors for men in combat units and, more recently, as platoon commanders for male recruits in non-combat units. At least two women have completed a course to become airborne combat navigators. Two are serving in the naval commando and an unspecified number serve in the prestigious aircraft rescue-and-recover units.

Finally, as of this summer, female recruits will be fully integrated in the artillery, anti-chemical warfare, and routine security maintenance units along the Jordanian and Egyptian borders. In some units, women complete the same military course as men, from basic training through officers' training and posting.

It is this integration and joint service that has incensed the rabbis, who have appealed to the chief of general staff and the heads of military manpower to ensure that men and women will not serve together in the same units.

Recently the Knesset Committee on the Advancement of the Status of Women devoted a special session to this conflict. Dayan, a member of One Israel, invited prominent rabbis and feminists. The rabbis came prepared with position papers and halachic interpretations. The feminists came ready to defend what they believe is a basic right and a crucial achievement.

"This whole integration issue is unnecessary," said Rabbi Haim Druckman, a member of the Knesset and the National Religious Party. "In the end, these few combat women won't really contribute anything to the army, and they will make it impossible for religious men to serve."

Moreover, said Rabbi Eliezer Sadan, head of the pre-military yeshiva in Eli, placing women in combat units violates their nature. "Women have wonderful qualities. It is their nature to nurture and to produce life. The army is ugly and powerful, and war is painful. We must protect women from the army.

"In the War of Independence, we had no choice and women had to serve. Today, thank God, we have a choice, so we must not teach women to kill. It will damage their souls."

Chazan, a Meretz member, responded angrily: "Who are you to decide that? Let every woman decide what her nature is!"

Sadan argued that "a religious man may not put himself in a position where he will violate halachah, but in these integrated units, he will have to violate halachah every day. To practice rescuing a wounded soldier from a tank, you must put your hands under the soldier's shirt, and lift him by the armpits. Can you imagine that a male soldier would practice this on a female?"

Rina Bar-Tal, chairwoman of the Israel Women's Network, retorted: "I would hope that if someone were wounded in a tank, you would think of her as a wounded human being, and not as a woman."

The committee members later flew out to a remote hilltop to visit a fully integrated anti-aircraft unit in the north.

Lt. Sigal is among the first group of female recruits to complete their entire military service, from basic training through officers' training and posting, together with men. Sigal's opinions are quite matter-of-fact.

"When my commander says follow me, I will follow him," she said. "If he is running into battle or crossing enemy lines, then that is what I will do. I am a competent, well-trained soldier, and it doesn't matter if I am a man or a woman."

Chazan is delighted. "It's young women like Sigal who give me hope that the feminist revolution might really succeed here in Israel," she said. "Men have been used to seeing women as inferior helpers. Now they will have to get used to seeing women as their equals and even as their superiors, and that will help break down gender stereotypes in civilian life as well."

But Langental remains distraught. "The men in this unit cannot possibly maintain halachic observance under these conditions. This is discrimination against religious men."

Capt. Yigal, who wears a large knitted kippah and defines himself as observant, responded to Langental: "As a religious man, I never had the opportunity to work with women like this before. I respect them tremendously, and I believe that they can do everything that the men can do. It has been a privilege to be in this unit, in which men and women served together from the beginning.

"I have not gone against the halachah. I keep the mitzvot, and I do not interact with the women in a way that conflicts with norms of tzniut [modesty] or n'gia."

The men and the women agreed that they share all responsibilities equally.

Said Lt. Shlomo, "I've learned a lot about myself and about women from serving with these women. I used to think that telling crude jokes or teasing the girls sexually was funny. I don't think that way anymore. I respect them now."

But quietly, as though not wanting to disrupt the trend of the soldiers' reports, Sgt. Dani said that he feels uncomfortable serving with the women. "It's not because the women aren't capable. They are. But I have had to interact with them in ways that have made me uncomfortable, and I feel that I have compromised my religious principles."

According to Brig.-Gen. Suzy Yogev, chief officer of the Women's Corps, the IDF has already implemented a solution for soldiers like Dani.

Men are given the option of choosing to serve in an all-male unit within the divisions — although, as in the past, women do serve in these units in the more traditional secretarial, social-services, and support roles."

The IDF has also promised the rabbis that orders prohibiting men and women from visiting each others' barracks will be strictly enforced.

Yogev believes that these solutions are adequate. But the rabbis are adamant. "The IDF is creating a ghetto of religious men!" Sherlo said. "We will not tolerate it!"