Female politicians fume, rabbis rejoice as IDF updates its gender policies

Female politicians fume, rabbis rejoice as IDF updates its gender policies

Few substantive changes are made to Joint Service Order, but softened language, subtle tweaks seen as reinforcing separation of men, women

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A male soldier from the co-ed Caracal Battalion applies camoflage paint to a female soldier's face before an exercise in 2011. (Ori Shifrin/Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)
A male soldier from the co-ed Caracal Battalion applies camoflage paint to a female soldier's face before an exercise in 2011. (Ori Shifrin/Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)

Female lawmakers railed against updates to the Israel Defense Forces rules regarding mixed-gender army service that were announced Tuesday. Though there were few substantive changes to the previous code, the updates reinforced the separation of men and women in the military.

Representatives from Israel’s religious community praised the revisions as “appropriate” and called it a potential step in the right direction.

Military officials downplayed the significance of the changes, noting that they did not have much practical implication but were geared toward clarifying existing rules.

Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli took issue with the army removing a portion of the military code, known as the “Joint Service Order,” that explicitly called for limiting restrictions based on gender “as much as possible.”

Zionist Union parliament member Merav Michaeli attending a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“By erasing the statement that the [Joint Service] Order should be implemented without separating genders as much as possible, the army is saying definitively that we’ve returned to total separation,” Michaeli said in the Knesset on Tuesday, during a discussion on the revised rule.

She decried the new order as being the “Bill of Rights for the religious and ultra-Orthodox soldier” that “gives legitimacy to the exclusion of women.”

On the other side of the aisle, Kulanu MK Merav Ben-Ari also warned that “there are numerous political groups that are doing damage to mixed-gender service, and that is a shame because the motivation of the girls is immense.”

Liora Minka, the head of the religious women’s movement Emuna, praised the revisions, saying the “army found the appropriate path” that takes into consideration the “fair and respectful treatment of women in the IDF and the values of religious male and female soldiers.”

Rabbi Eli Sadan speaks during a protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rabbi Eli Sadan, the head of an influential pre-army religious program in the West Bank settlement of Eli, also praised the decision and said there was “no split between the religious-Zionist community and the army,” according to a report from the Kan public broadcaster.

The head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, told the Knesset on Tuesday that the changes were designed to make aspects of the order clearer for lower-ranking officers, and were not the result of pressure from rabbis.

“We’ve received reports of inaccurate interpretations of the orders by commanders, and in light of that we released the [new] instructions,” he said.

“The Joint Service Order is supposed to unify the army, not divide it,” Almoz added.

File: Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion prepare for a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other top military officials met with leading rabbis and women’s groups as they formulated the revised orders, in an attempt to make the army more accepting of women — who are increasingly taking on combat positions — while not offending Israel’s religious communities.

Ahead of one such meeting, a group of leading rabbis threatened to encourage their students to forgo serving as officers in the army if their demands were not met.

Another contentious change to the army code dealt with the rights of officers and career soldiers who are assigned to a co-ed combat unit, but believe they won’t be able to maintain their religious lifestyle in such an environment.

The language was significantly softened in favor of soldiers who want to abstain from serving with members of the other gender. Specifically, officers excised a section noting that officers and career soldiers might have to serve in mixed-gender units despite their discomfort.

However, army officials stressed there was no substantive change to that rule, which maintains that the officers can submit a request, once they get approval from the chief rabbi, to the head of the Manpower Directorate for consideration.

Speaking to the religious Kipa news outlet, Rabbi Meir Nehorai, the head of a rabbinic group, thanked Eisenkot for “making changes that are significant and allow us to live peacefully with the order, especially the section about religious officers [not wanting to serve in co-ed combat battalions].”

Another leading religious figure, Rabbi Haim Baruch, told Kipa that the updates to the order seem to be in line with his community’s desires, but that its true significance will only be in the implementation.

“If every battalion commander just does what he wants, nothing will have changed,” he said.

A pillbox-style watchtower along the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem on July 31, 2007. (Maya Levin / Flash 90)

The other central issue addressed in the updated order concerns ensuring separate sleeping and washing facilities for men and women. This requirement already exists, but is not always possible in some operational conditions, like in the cramped pillbox-style bunkers located in the West Bank.

In the past, the army allowed some exceptions, with approval, for men and women to use the same bathrooms and showers.

An army official said that in the coming weeks, the army will finish the construction of separate facilities for men and women in such pillbox-style bunkers.

In addition, under the new orders, exceptional cases where men and women use the same bathroom will still be allowed, but the permission to do so will come from a higher-ranking officer, the chief of staff of the Manpower Directorate, which is seen as an indication that it will happen less frequently.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world with universal conscription. Though women fought in pre-state militias and during the 1948 Independence War, female soldiers were largely relegated to noncombat roles in the subsequent decades.

Illustrative. Male and female soldiers of the Bardelas Battalion preparing for urban warfare training on an early foggy morning, near Nitzanim in the Arava area of Southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Since the 1990s, however, the military has been opening more positions to women, and in the past five years, the number of female combat soldiers has increased nearly fivefold.

The process has been met with harsh criticism from religious leaders, who warn that such service might lead to increased fraternization between the sexes, and from some former top officers, who argue that women are not capable of fighting as well as men and that further integration will weaken the army’s ability to defend the country.

The military, for its part, maintains that it is not looking to advance an agenda, but rather is bringing in more women into combat units out of operational necessity, not social consideration.

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