Dozens of religious soldiers from the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade refused to listen to a female parachuting instructor earlier this week, turning their backs to her when she tried to give them a demonstration.
The incident came to light after the mother of the instructor, Shira Margalit, who runs a popular women’s news website, posted about it on Twitter on Wednesday morning.
“I barely fell asleep last night after a hard day in which I had to hear my soldier daughter Noa, a parachuting instructor, tell me that when she was giving a demonstration to 70 paratroopers during an exercise, 50 of them turned their backs to her and stood themselves in lines because she was a woman!” Margalit wrote.
The Israel Defense Forces later confirmed that the incident indeed took place, but disputed the number of soldiers involved in the protest.
“Approximately 30 recruits who did not want to watch the presentation that was put on by the female soldier turned their heads [away from her],” the army said in a statement.
According to the IDF, the soldiers were from a unit made up of religious yeshiva students.
The army said the soldiers’ commander had a “conversation” with them following the incident, telling them that they would be kicked out of the parachuting course if they continued to show “disrespect” toward the female instructors.
The instructor is the daughter of the head of IDF Operations, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva.
In its statement, the military said the IDF sees importance in maintaining an “egalitarian vision” and strives to conduct its activities “regardless of religion, race and gender.”
The Israel Women’s Network activist group criticized the army for its limited response and implied that the IDF was being hypocritical by playing up the achievements of female soldiers while allowing situations like this to take place.
“As the IDF is announcing that it is appointing the first female head of an air force flight squadron, there is a parallel reality in which male soldiers are allowed to humiliate a female soldier, only because she is a woman, and the response of the IDF spokesperson is that they held a clarifying conversation about the incident,” the group said in a statement.
The organization said it scheduled a meeting with the head of the IDF’s Manpower Division in which it would present “dozens of testimonies from female soldiers” who were similarly insulted.
“[The representatives from the organization] will clarify that the IDF must protect the dignity of female soldiers. The only way to do this is with institutional training and severe punishment for those who violate army orders,” the Israel Women’s Network said.
On Tuesday, the IDF announced it was appointing the first female commander of a flight squadron: the Nachshon Squadron, which operates surveillance aircraft.
The 34-year-old transport plane pilot, whose name cannot be published for security reasons, will replace the current commander of the squadron in the coming months.
“I’m happy about the appointment,” she said, in a statement from the military. “It is a great privilege along with a great responsibility. The true work is still ahead. I am proud to serve in the Air Force.”
In addition to the IDF’s announcement on Tuesday about the female squadron commander, the paratrooper incident also came as the military saw the largest number of women joining combat units.
Some 1,000 women were inducted into the military to serve in combat units this summer, 150 more female recruits than in 2017 and nearly double the total amount of female combat soldiers that served in the IDF in 2012, 547, according to IDF statistics.
The issue of female soldiers interacting with religious servicemen has long been a bone of contention in Israeli society. Proponents of gender integration maintain that it is necessary to ensure equality for men and women, while opponents claim that it violates religious soldiers’ right to practice their faith.
Male soldiers who serve in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, units are generally not required to interact with female troops, though most other religious soldiers must receive special permission to get out of activities with members of the opposite sex.
Controversies about the issue typically arise over IDF dress codes — specifically for sports and other activities that take place out of uniform — or over women singing at ceremonies, which some religious soldiers refuse to listen to.
In April, for instance, a female IDF officer was reportedly told she could not read a prayer for fallen soldiers at her unit’s commemoration ceremony for Memorial Day out of consideration for religious troops. The military later said the incident was a “mistake,” which was not in line with army policy.