Rabbis threaten IDF with boycott over mixed-gender service

Orthodox leaders say they’ll tell students not to enroll in officers’ course, unless army changes gender regulations

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Religious soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion pray while completing the final stages of a 40 kilometer journey in 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Illustrative: Religious soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion pray while completing the final stages of a 40 kilometer journey in 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

A group of leading Orthodox rabbis and teachers are reportedly planning to urge their students to boycott the army’s officers’ training course, unless the military makes significant changes to its policies on mixed-gender service.

The rabbis made the decision on Sunday, ahead of a meeting with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot planned for Tuesday, Army Radio reported Monday.

The issue of women’s service in the Israel Defense Forces is a constant source of tension between the army and Israel’s Orthodox community, parts of which object both to mixed-gender service — especially in combat units — and, separately, to service for religious women.

“If there isn’t a significant change in the spirit of the [mixed-gender orders] and in the practices in the field, we will block religious Jews from joining officers’ courses,” the rabbis threatened, according to the report.

Rabbi Zalman Melamed, of the Beit El Yeshiva, will boycott the meeting with Eisenkot on Tuesday out of the assumption that the army will not make any of the proposed changes, according to the report. A second rabbi is also reportedly considering staying away from the meeting.

Michal Nagen, one of the religious leaders present when the ostensible decision to boycott the officers’ course was made, downplayed its significance.

“Who’s threatening? There’s no threat. It’s an ongoing, open conversation that’s been happening for months between us and the chief of staff,” Nagen, who heads a pre-army academy for Orthodox women, told Army Radio.

Nagen said the “threat” was a statement of fact — that without changes Orthodox soldiers would not go to officers’ training out of a renewed sense of “awareness” regarding the issue.

“Our male and female students, who observe Jewish law, are locked in a situation where they can’t live as devout people in certain parts of the army,” she said. “We want results on the ground, and so far there have been no changes.”

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah decried the rabbis’ action as “impertinent” and called on the chief of staff to cancel his meeting with them, “unless they apologize and rescind the threats.”

Shelah, seen as his party’s defense strategist, said the rabbis’ threat was also a fairly empty one, as they are not in a position to forbid their students from becoming IDF officers.

“[The rabbis] don’t ‘send them’ to officers’ training course. They go out of a appreciation for its value and from a sense of duty,” Shelah said in a statement.

He noted that many senior officers in the IDF come from the religious Zionist community, a fact that should be a source of pride for the group. “But the pride is being overshadowed by the words of these rabbis, who long ago lost their sense of shame,” he said.

The IDF refused to comment on whether Eisenkot would still meet with the rabbis as scheduled or if the army planned to make changes to the rules regarding mixed-gender service.

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