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Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)
Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)

SHIRA HERZOG

A different battle: female soldiers, religious soldiers Add to ...

In what can be described as an Israeli take on Canada’s “reasonable accommodation” debate, Israel’s military finds itself torn between two apparently irreconcilable processes: equality of opportunity for female soldiers, and religious accommodation of Orthodox male soldiers.

As a “citizens army” of compulsory conscripts from virtually all dimensions of Israeli society (18-year-old men serve three years, women two), the Israel Defence Forces provide a mirror into the values of the day and, in turn, influence public discourse on them. What happens there can’t be ignored because nearly every household is in some way connected to the IDF.

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Neither gender equality nor religious accommodation are new to the military (or society at large, for that matter), but the juxtaposition of more religious soldiers and more women in combat units and training positions has brought the issue to a head and sparked a new round of public debate.

Gender equality for female soldiers has been high on the agenda since the 1995 landmark Supreme Court “Alice Miller” decision (named for the appellant who challenged her rejection from pilot training on gender grounds) barring exclusion of women from any military role they could physically perform. The ruling led to seminal changes in the placement of women: If they once served largely in administrative support roles, they now serve in 90 per cent of military jobs, with the exception of core fighting units.

Israel has never had formal separation of religion and state, and the IDF has a series of religious accommodation practices that allow observant male and female soldiers to serve without compromising their religious lifestyle. But demographics are now challenging rules that worked in the past.

Religious Israelis have larger families and, in the past decade, in an effort to achieve positions of influence as career officers, more soldiers from the religious nationalist community have volunteered for elite combat units. Highly motivated and educated, they now make up 50 per cent of the IDF’s junior command and more than 20 per cent of senior ranks.

Many live in West Bank settlements and studied in religious academies led by charismatic hard-line rabbis they see as their ultimate leaders. When these rabbis publicly reject standing military orders (ranging from the treatment of hostile civilians to stringent lifestyle demands), soldiers are caught between two sources of authority.

The latest round of controversy was sparked by the refusal of religious soldiers to attend events with female vocalists on the grounds that a woman singing was immodest. But the problem goes far deeper – to soldiers who feel uncomfortable with female instructors and officers who prefer to hire male juniors to avoid the prospect of being alone with a female colleague.

The number of soldiers from the religious nationalist community makes it impossible to ignore the issue. So far, the IDF leadership, including its chief chaplain, Rafi Peretz (a former combat pilot who rejects any efforts to weaken women’s positions), is standing firm in support of gender equality. And in a form of poetic justice, Orna Barbivai, Israel’s first female major-general and head of the IDF’s human resources command, chairs the committee reassessing the issue.

Last week, the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said the IDF remains committed to integrating women into every military role they can perform, while accommodating religious soldiers. His oxymoronic statement starkly expressed the conundrum he’s in. But as an open democracy at war and a state that’s grappled with religious-secular differences from day one, Israel and the IDF have ample precedent for pragmatic compromises that blunt the edge of absolute principles.

One thing is clear: In the choice between gender equality and religious accommodation in the army, the public at large will support the former over the latter.

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