Religious girls enlisting to IDF in record numbers

Rabbinical objections notwithstanding, data shows significant rise in Orthodox female draftees in recent years

A religious school for girls in Gush Etzion, September 1, 2009 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
A religious school for girls in Gush Etzion, September 1, 2009 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

At a time when prominent rabbis have voiced vehement objections to young religious women enlisting in the army, the IDF reports that the number of religious females electing to enlist is higher than ever.

In a story published in Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday, IDF officials said 2013 had seen a record 1,616 religious girls volunteer for service. The numbers, they said, were on a steady rise, and had almost doubled since 2010’s total of 935.

Not only has the number of draftees gone up, officials said, religious women were increasingly engaging in what the army dubs “meaningful service”: intelligence-gathering, teaching and even infantry training, to name a few.

The standard period of mandatory service for women in the IDF is two years. Religious girls have the option to swap the service for one or two years of national service in the civilian sector instead. Most prefer this track for fear of having their faith disrespected or corrupted by the military atmosphere.

Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzchak Yosef recently ruled that under Jewish law, women should not serve in the military. This, they said, continued “the tradition of previous chief rabbis.” The ruling elicited a venomous response from Finance Minister and Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, who called for the chief rabbis’ immediate dismissal.

“We are talking about civil servants who receive a very handsome salary from the State of Israel, sit in their comfortable offices with their vehicles nearby, and announce their disapproval of girls serving in the mud and the cold,” he wrote.

But the chief rabbis — whose stance is backed by Lapid’s own party colleague, Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron — were only giving voice to opinions held by many other prominent rabbis. Yedioth quoted Yehuda Deri, the chief rabbi of Beersheba, who said female enlistment must not be allowed “under any circumstances.” Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu said the drafting of females was “a well-orchestrated plan to erase Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.”

Still, “rabbinical statements and reality are two separate things,” a senior source in the IDF’s manpower branch told Yedioth, adding that girls choosing to enlist were coming from the mainstream of the national religious community, from central and well-respected schools.

The source explained that many of the girls were deciding to enlist after hearing of the positive experiences of others. “The girls who completed their service saw that it wasn’t as they’d feared,” the unnamed official said. “They were not ‘corrupted,’ they were given the best conditions to keep their faith, and our polls show they are successful in doing so.”

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