In a radio interview on Sunday, former general Yiftach Ron-Tal claimed a recent proposal to integrate women into tank brigades is a “scandal,” and part of a conspiracy by far-left organizations to harm the Israel Defense Forces.
“I think there are [far-left] groups with special interests behind this that are using this process, which is supposedly a democratic and important process to produce more fighters for the IDF, in order to weaken our army. It’s terrible. I know it’s terrible what I’m saying,” Ron-Tal said, acknowledging that he cannot prove this is true.
“The people leading this, sorry for the phrasing, are freaks,” he added.
Ron-Tal, now the director of the Israel Electric Company, apologized for the allegation in a Facebook post hours later.
Kulanu party MK Rachel Azaria, a proponent of better gender integration in the army, considered the allegation bizarre.
“I don’t even know how to answer that,” she said in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
Azaria brushed off Ron-Tal’s “unfounded” assertion and said she advocates allowing more women to serve in combat units out of both Zionist and practical considerations.
“The army needs good soldiers and soldiers who want to serve. Right now that’s women,” she said, citing female troopers’ documented high motivation levels.
“[The generals are] not opening up these units because they’re being nice to women. The army’s doing it because they are good soldiers,” she said.
In his Facebook apology, Ron-Tal wrote: “I apologize from the bottom of my heart if it was implied by the things I said that left-wing organizations are behind this process, with the intention of weakening the strength of the IDF. My position is certainly not that, and I am convinced from the bottom of my heart that these groups see and want the best for the IDF and the best for the security of the state.”
‘It’s a scandal’
The question of integrating female soldiers into combat units came to the fore last week when a brigadier general revealed in a meeting of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee — of which Azaria is a member — that the army was revisiting the prospect of allowing women to serve as fighters in the Armored Corps.
Ron-Tal, a former head of the army’s Ground Forces, has come out fiercely against such a move, railing against it in an article on the religious news site Kipa and again on the right-wing Galey Israel radio station on Sunday morning.
“It’s not just a mistake, it’s a malfunction, and it’s not just a malfunction, it’s a scandal,” he told the radio station.
“It’s surreal. Have we gone off the rails?” he asked, rhetorically.
“You know what the next stage is? It’s not tanks. The next stage is the [Paratroopers] Brigade, the Golani Brigade, the Givati Brigade, the Nahal Brigade. Ask Rachel Azaria about that,” he said on the radio program.
‘Why [Border Police] yes, but Paratroopers no?’
When asked just that, Azaria noted that the Border Police, a gendarmerie known in Hebrew by its acronym “Magav,” now allows women to serve in its ranks.
“Why Magav yes, but Paratroopers no?” Azaria asked, rhetorically.
The majority of Ron-Tal’s argument against female combat service appeared to be based off a book written by a former IDF colonel, Raz Sagi, who in recent years has made a career out of speaking and writing against women in combat roles.
The book’s title is a difficult-to-translate Hebrew play-on-words, which can mean both “[women] fighting in the army” or “[women] fighting the army.” Its cover features a 50-foot tall woman in uniform bursting her way through the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters.
According to both Ron-Tal and Sagi, the issue comes down to physiology; on average, women are shorter, have less muscle mass and have weaker bones than men.
“A female soldier with a vest that’s of the average weight of the vests worn by male soldiers causes serious orthopedic injuries,” Ron-Tal said on the radio program.
A 2013 army study led by Dr. Yuval Heled, then a lieutenant colonel in the IDF Medical Corps, stated as much, noting that women generally have to work harder in order to complete the same physical task — a march with a heavy rucksack, for instance — as their male counterparts. This extra effort can lead, and has led, to increased injury among women.
For instance, in the IDF’s mixed-gender Caracal Battalion, 40 percent of the female soldiers had suffered some kind of injury, and in the Artillery Corps, that number was close to 70%, according to statistics cited in a 2015 article in the army’s Bamahane magazine.
However, the 2013 study noted that some of these injuries can be avoided by modifying equipment, which is generally designed to fit a man’s shoulder-heavy frame, to women’s bodies and by requiring a diet for female soldiers that is richer in calcium and protein to protect bones and help build muscle.
In addition, the study found, training often has far greater physical fitness requirements than combat where “the principal factor is professionalism.”
In a conversation with The Times of Israel in 2015, Heled also noted that while issues such as stress fractures are indeed an issue for female soldiers, some of the claims about the damage to women’s health are blown out of proportion or are simply untrue, including a persistent myth — one repeated by Sagi — that combat service has been linked to uterine problems and infertility. (There is even an entirely false urban legend that female soldiers joining combat units have to sign a waiver “giving up” their uterus.)
Azaria acknowledged the physiological differences between men and women, but noted that while on average women may be slower or physically weaker than men, there are women who are stronger and faster than men.
The army, therefore, should set criteria for its units, and if “10% of women” can meet those requirements, then 10% of women should be able to serve in those units, she said.
According to Azaria, though the army is not yet prepared to entirely throw open the gates to full gender equality, the decision of “who should serve where” should be determined by “who can do the job.”
It’s us or them
The other aspect of the issue, however, is the practical and logistic changes that need to go into effect in order for women to serve in combat units.
Boots, backpacks and vests that are designed to better fit a woman’s lower center of gravity would need to be purchased, and vehicles that are designed for a taller male frame would need to be scaled down to size.
According to Azaria, the army should start making those changes and those purchases and see how the situation develops, noting that this isn’t an overnight decision, but a “process.”
‘As a people’s army, the IDF needs to protect the rights of religious soldiers’
The article on the religious news website Kipa raised another issue for the integration of women, the effect that such a move would have on Orthodox soldiers.
Those serving in tanks sometimes go days without leaving the vehicle, meaning they must urinate and defecate in front of their crew members, which would be a problem in a mixed-gender team.
Speaking on the radio, Ron-Tal argued that “as a people’s army, the IDF needs to protect the rights of religious soldiers.”
(Neither the article nor Ron-Tal addressed the possibility of all-male and all-female tanks, which may present some other logistical problems, but would solve the “bathroom” issue.)
The Kipa article, which was titled “The army needs to decide who they want in the tank: religious Zionist men or female fighters,” presented just that ultimatum.
Azaria, who is religious, took issue with notion.
“I so disagree with this perspective,” she said. “You don’t get to choose. Everyone has to join the army. We have to work together.”