Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday rejected accusations that the Israel Defense Forces is pushing a “feminist agenda” with its mixed-gender units, which have come under fire in Orthodox Jewish circles.
“The IDF is not advancing any agenda, not a feminist or a chauvinistic one,” Liberman said at the inauguration of the army’s new training base in the Negev desert for mixed-gender border defense units.
“The IDF has one agenda: Israel’s security. Therefore its considerations are solely operational considerations,” he added.
The issue of mixed-gender combat units gained prominence in March after a rabbi who runs a pre-army religious academy told new IDF recruits that military service drives female soldiers “crazy” and strips them of their Jewishness.
The comments by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein led to swift condemnations from a number of lawmakers, while Liberman called for the Bnei David Preparatory academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli to lose Defense Ministry funding over the remarks, a demand he later backed down from.
Despite initially refusing to apologize for his remarks, Levinstein later said the tone of his comments was “inappropriate” but maintained that “women have been taken hostage by the feminist movement.”
The military has in recent years been increasing the integration of female soldiers in combat units, most recently allowing women to serve in the Armored Corps for the first time in the nation’s history. The move raised hackles in the religious community who consider males serving in close proximity to women immodest.
The IDF currently has a number of mixed-gender battalions tasked with border defense, the first of which — Caracal — was created in 2004.
In 2015, a second mixed-gender battalion, the Lions of the Jordan, took up positions along the Jordan Valley. A third co-ed battalion, known as Cheetah, or Bardelas, was created in 2015 and guards the borders of the Arava Desert in southern Israel.
A fourth mixed-gender battalion, the Lions of the Valley, was formed earlier this year and has yet to be fully deployed.
Despite the growing consternation among religious leaders over integrated service and the enlistment of religious female recruits, a Knesset-commissioned study released in May found that the number of women from national-religious backgrounds joining the IDF has doubled in recent years, even though they are exempt from serving in the army.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.