Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana said Sunday that he opposes the integration of women into combat roles, and in particular elite units, because there are so few who have the physical ability to serve alongside their male counterparts, and because of the religious hurdles involved.
Kahana, a former soldier in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit who went on to become a fighter pilot in the air force, made the remarks at a conference organized by the B’Sheva weekly, which has a largely religious readership.
He said it was “a mistake” to include women in combat “maneuvering units,” meaning those that are tasked with entering deep into enemy territory.
Referring to special forces units, Kahana claimed that research around the world has shown “combining women in this kind of unit damages the level of the team.”
It was unclear which research he was referring to.
“I think that the first and foremost role of the IDF is to beat the enemy and not to advance social agendas,” he said. “Even if there is one female soldier in a thousand who is able to reach the level of [a male soldier in an elite unit], the price is not worth paying,” Kahana said.
In addition, Kahana cited the complications that coed units have from the point of view of Jewish religious law, known as halacha, which includes rules on modest relations between men and women.
“I think that there is also a very great halachic challenge to this, I am not hiding that aspect of things,” said Kahana who is religious and a member of the Yamina party.
The minister stressed that “women in relevant positions make a very great contribution, for example as members of aircrew.”
Kahana had been asked to comment on a High Court petition, filed last year, by four women demanding the right to try out for some of the IDF’s most elite units alongside male cadets, Haaretz reported. The High Court responded that it wants to wait for the results of an internal IDF panel that is looking into the matter.
Last month the IDF announced that, in a first, a company of all-women tank operators will be stationed along the Egyptian border as part of an ongoing pilot program to assess the feasibility of female armored crews.
Women serve in a variety of roles in the IDF, in many cases alongside their male counterparts. There are also fully integrated mixed-gender combat units such as the Caracal and Bardelas battalions, which are tasked with protecting Israel’s border with Egypt and Jordan, respectively.
Soldiers serving in those border units do not need to meet the same physical requirements as troops in regular infantry brigades, who must be capable of carrying heavy gear long distances, which men on average are physically better suited toward than women.
Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed measure, one that has already been implemented in many Western countries.
Detractors note that some requirements for female combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that servicewomen suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.
The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a social agenda, saying it requires all the woman- and manpower available to it.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.