Rabbis vow to keep women out of IDF tanks

Orthodox leaders say they will campaign to maintain status quo, will instruct soldiers to resist attempts at integration

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of a female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Illustrative image of a female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Several leading rabbis have decided to campaign against moves by the IDF to further integrate women into combat units, and plan to advise religious male soldiers to avoid orders relating to mixed-gender activities.

The decision was taken following a meeting of the rabbis on the subject, Army Radio reported on Wednesday.

Among those who took part were Dov Lior, a prominent figure in the right-wing fringe of the ultra-Orthodox Zionist community; Shmuel Eliyahu, the rabbi of the northern city of Safed; and Mordechai Sternberg, the head of the Har Hamor yeshiva.

The question of allowing female soldiers to serve in combat units came up afresh this month when a brigadier general revealed in a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the army was revisiting the prospect of allowing women to serve as fighters in the Armored Corps.

That revelation renewed a decades-old discussion about gender equality in the IDF. Former generals and military officials have since come out of the woodwork to voice their opinions on the subject.

Dror Aryeh, from the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva. (screen capture/YeshivaGvohaaHesdear/YouTube)
Dror Aryeh, from the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva. (screen capture/YeshivaGvohaaHesdear/YouTube)

The current head of the Armored Corps, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, came out strongly against allowing women a greater role in tank units, saying there were fundamental issues preventing integration of such units, including physical requirements and social concerns, as well as the “image” of the corps.

Dror Aryeh, a rabbi at the Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot, who took part in the rabbis’ meeting Tuesday, told Army Radio that their primary concern was maintaining the fighting capability of the army. He argued that the idea of integrating women was being pushed as part of an “extremist” political agenda.

“It is clear that certain organizations with an extremist political agenda have infiltrated the army and are trying to disrupt very delicate balances that have been created over many years,” he said, claiming reviews carried out by other armies found that integrating women into tanks disrupted the unity of the crews, required a reduction in the physical demands and professionalism of the soldiers, and was also bad for the women’s health.

“This order reeks of coercion and damage to the concept of equality,” Aryeh said.

Israel's universal draft is one factor behind the low peacefulness rating. Here, soldiers are being sworn in to a religious IDF unit. (photo credit: Photo by Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox soldiers being sworn in to a religious IDF unit. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Aryeh’s comments echoed those of former IDF general Yiftach Ron-Tal, who earlier this month claimed that the move to integrate women into combat units was part of a left-wing scheme to “weaken” the Israel Defense Forces. He later apologized for the comments following a wave of condemnation by Knesset members and public figures.

Hesder yeshivas, of which there are several around the country, enable religious soldiers to combine their national service in the army with time spent studying religious texts in the yeshivas. The soldiers are usually inducted into “hesder units” within the tank and infantry corps, where they are better able to maintain religious practices such as prayers and observing Shabbat, the day of rest.

Aryeh warned that for the rabbis the further integration of women into frontline combat units is a “red line” and said they would instruct soldiers to resist the integration of women. Still, he did not specifically say the soldiers should refuse orders.

“This is crossing a line and disrupting the status quo,” he said. “These orders will damage our sacred values — we can’t carry them out. We have Torah and we have divine morality… In the name of equality, they are blurring the differences and roles between the sexes… It is a problem not just for religious soldiers, and not just for one group or the other, it is damaging also to the women, to the honor of the women.”

The report said the rabbis intend to appeal to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to also intervene against the integration moves.

An IDF Merkava tank fires during drills in the Golan Heights in 2008. (photo credit: Neil Cohen/IDF Spokesperson's Unit via Wikimedia Commons)
An IDF Merkava tank fires during drills in the Golan Heights in 2008. (Neil Cohen/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit via Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday Channel 2 reported that 86 new conscripts were jailed after refusing to enlist in various combat units of the Armored Corps division to which they were assigned.

MK Ofer Shelah, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, blamed the attitude of the rabbis for causing the mass refusal by conscripts at the army’s central induction center.

“There is a direct and dangerous line running from the the war rabbis declared on the integration of women in combat positions, and the refusal by dozens of soldiers to accept assignments to the armored corps.”

Added Shelah, “Let it be clear: Only the army commanders will decide who serves in which units and in what role. The rabbi and the parent will not replace the commanders.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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