August 21 - Women and religion in the IDF: where are we heading?


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Israel's absorption of more women and ultra-Orthodox men, and if that engenders conflict; how these army issues and contradictions play out in society; the challenge the IDF confronts; parallels to these issues elsewhere in the Middle East; and if there is a collective bottom line between the Israeli and Kurdish experiences.

Q. The Israel Defense Forces are absorbing more women and more ultra-Orthodox men than ever. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

A. There is indeed, considering the problems the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, have in serving, studying or working with women. To complicate the picture even further, more and more Orthodox women are volunteering for military service even as their rabbis fulminate against the trend. And with more religious Israeli Jews serving, there are greater pressures within the IDF to impose religious standards in areas where traditionally secular standards have prevailed. On the other hand, the IDF now has mixed (co-ed) combat units and women pilots, all functioning smoothly.

The contradiction also lies in repeated controversies among the religious themselves. This is particularly noticeable where rabbis who administer yeshivas that prepare Orthodox men for the army confront a growing loss of influence over Orthodox women. Thus, a few months ago at the large settlement of Eli in the West Bank, a prominent rabbi/teacher in a preparatory program for military service, Yigal Levinstein, called Orthodox young women who volunteer to serve in the IDF “not Jewish” and asked, “who will marry them?” (once they are no longer “pure” due to military service which, some rabbis argue, will make them promiscuous). The minister of defense obliged Levinstein to apologize; he did so in vague language.

The Haredim, incidentally, are in some cases now required by law to serve; in other cases, they have come to view military service as a key to future productive employment or educational opportunities. On the other hand, Haredi soldiers--some of them dropouts from Haredi yeshivot--often encounter hostility on the part of Haredi society as a whole, which is non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist and still does not approve of serving in the “Zionist” army.

Note that Orthodox women are still officially excused from army service unless they volunteer--which more and more are doing. The number of religious women soldiers has risen from 935 in 2010 to 2,159 in 2015. The IDF is considering forming a combat platoon of religious women. In recent months we have witnessed a sharp rise in (not necessarily Orthodox) female volunteers for the Border Police following the killing and wounding of women serving in that combined army/police force in sensitive parts of East Jerusalem.

In another instance, IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim, confronted with the appointment of a graduate of the Eli Orthodox program to command a mixed male-female unit, complained publicly that a religious officer should not serve in such a unit. A senior officer answered this and similar complaints: “There is a revolution, but it’s not in the IDF, it’s among the religious public.”


Q. How do these army issues and contradictions play out in society?

A. All of these ostensibly contradictory developments appear to be present increasingly in Israeli society as a whole. Ultra-Orthodox men are not only serving more in the army; they (and ultra-Orthodox women) are also increasingly moving into university study and the salaried job market.

Attempts to impose Orthodox standards in the army, for example by preventing female singers from appearing before soldiers, are paralleled in the secular school system when an Orthodox minister of education rewrites Zionist history to feature primarily religious values. And they are paralleled in Israeli society in general when the Ministry for Religious Services, aspiring to “restore the Jewish soul to the State of Israel”, is awarded a 65 percent budget increase for its unit for promoting “Jewish identity”. The picture is further complicated by the fact that in Israel, Orthodox values are increasingly stringent and demanding, reflecting ultra-Orthodox political influence along with the fact that religious Jews have a growing presence in the government and the army, hence greater clout.


Q.How would you summarize the challenge the IDF confronts?

A. How to integrate more secular female soldiers, more religious female soldiers, and more ultra-Orthodox men in more significant areas of service, and still function smoothly, bearing in mind that most IDF soldiers, male and female, remain secular or traditional, not Orthodox.

The IDF is intent on making this work. At a time when some youth, male and female, are looking for ways not to serve at all due to objections to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, religious and female soldiers broaden the manpower base and help maintain the image of a broad-based people’s army. This can also be seen as the IDF’s contribution to integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli mainstream.

On the other hand, precisely because the occupation is so controversial in Israeli society, this trend enables ultra-Orthodox men and Orthodox women to demonstrate their right-wing political allegiance by serving and deepening the religious dimension of society in general and of the army in particular.

How deep is this revolution with all its contradictions? In late July, Nachum Barnea described the security network deployed by the IDF on a highly-trafficked Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, part of which traverses West Bank territory: “Female soldiers staff the situation room with the surveillance screens [covering 280 video cameras positioned along the road]. A mixed Rear Command battalion, male and female, is responsible for the territory on both sides of the security fence. Sometimes the battalion works with soldiers from battalion 97, the Haredi battalion [where women are not present due to ultra-Orthodox objections], who have been deployed in this theater in recent months. As long as the activity is operational, there is no problem.”

And here is another revolutionary contradiction: the IDF, in support of pluralism, just agreed for the first time to permit totally secular burial in its cemeteries. Note, too, that the IDF has played a pioneering role in Israeli society in integrating LGBT soldiers, the autistic and the mentally impaired. Indeed, thus far the IDF leadership, especially Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, has to be awarded high marks for managing the competing societal pressures it is exposed to regarding expanded service by women and the ultra-Orthodox on the one hand, and religious restrictions regarding the mixing of the sexes on the other.

Still, the overall trend in the IDF, as elsewhere in the security community and in Israeli politics and society, is a greater Jewish Orthodox religious presence. I’m old enough to recall when the Mossad cafeteria served non-Kosher food. Now many Mossad personnel are Orthodox, from the chief of the organization on down, and there are rabbis at gatherings of security community veterans.


Q. Are there parallels to these issues elsewhere in the Middle East?

A. One instance in particular stands out, the product of recent years’ revolution in the region. Kurdish women in both northern Iraq and northern Syria are integrated into Kurdish fighting units. Interestingly, the existence of female units in the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga does not reflect any elevation of the status of women in Iraqi Kurdish society, which remains generally patriarchal and traditional in the Islamic sense.

In contrast, the main Syrian Kurdish revolutionary movement opposing the Assad regime is broadly secular in nature. Here integration of women in the armed forces reflects, or at least aspires to reflect, their integration into society in general. There is a Syrian Kurdish women’s battalion and Kurdish Women’s Defense Units, and Kurdish women have joined Kurdish-Arab-Assyrian Christian units of the Syrian Democratic Militias. Syrian Kurdish women have their own military academy.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based non-governmental organization that monitors the Syrian Civil War and has a reputation for objective accuracy, no fewer than 23,500 women have been killed in combat in the Syrian civil war. Most are presumably Kurdish. One reason some Kurds offer for the success of Kurdish women in combat is that the Islamist fighters they encounter fear to be killed by a woman. According to Muslim doctrine, this would deprive the dead Islamist of the ultimate reward in heaven for becoming a martyr, a shahid: keeping company with 72 virgins for eternity. Thus has militant Islamist ideology contributed, perversely, to women’s liberation in the Middle East.

Uniquely, the Syrian Kurdish movement has adopted the ideology of “communalism” inspired by the teachings of a Vermont-based New York-born Jew, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006). Communalism, which is secular and almost anarchistic in nature, preaches full equality for women. The Syrian Kurdish movement adopted it from the Turkish Kurdish breakaway movement, the PKK, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan (long incarcerated in Turkey) first promulgated it. In practice, local rule in liberated Syrian Kurdistan is reportedly more authoritarian than egalitarian. But it is secular.


Q. Looking at the Kurdish experience and comparing it to Israel, is there a collective bottom line here?

A. Orthodoxy--Jewish or Muslim--is apparently an impediment to the full integration of women, whether in military service or in society in general. Of course, there are religious Jews and Muslims who would disagree, based on their gender values. And there are plenty of examples of women serving in essentially secular armies such as the early IDF and the WWII Red Army who were never able to enjoy anything approaching equal status.

Israel’s experiment integrating both women and the very religious into the IDF is still a work in progress. Stay tuned for future developments.