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Deputy minister knocks plan to let more women into combat units

Matan Kahana, a reserve fighter pilot, says he fears IDF will lower standards to bring female recruits into elite helicopter-borne search-and-rescue outfit

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

Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion put camouflage makeup on in preparation for a 16-kilometer overnight journey to complete their training course, in Azoz village, southern Israel, near the border with Egypt, September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion put camouflage makeup on in preparation for a 16-kilometer overnight journey to complete their training course, in Azoz village, southern Israel, near the border with Egypt, September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana on Tuesday night spoke out against an Israel Defense Forces plan to offer more combat roles to women, specifically in elite outfits, arguing that this would likely result in lower standards and difficulties for observant soldiers in those units.

“Even if you find the one, two, maybe four women [who can handle the physical demands of an infantry unit], the conundrum is that for those two or four women you would have to crush an entire population that has a real issue with this in terms of Jewish law,” Kahana said.

Kahana, who is Orthodox and has a storied military career, was referring to oft-heard concerns about modesty issues that would arise from men and women serving together in the close quarters of a combat field unit. His remarks represent rare criticism of the IDF by a senior government official, as he questioned the military’s assurances that it would not lower its standards and would continue to “meet its operational tasks at the required quality.”

Last week, a group of senior rabbis from the national religious camp signed on to a statement urging Kohavi to cease efforts to draft women into combat units alongside men.

Though Jewish women are required to enlist in the military, until relatively recently they were barred from all but a handful of combat positions. Over the past decade, the IDF has opened a number of dedicated mixed-gender light infantry battalions, as well as a female-only tank unit, and has also allowed women to serve in more and more combat roles in the IDF Home Front Command, the Artillery Corps, the Navy and elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the IDF announced it was expanding this further and, as a first step, would allow women to try out for the elite Unit 669, a helicopter-borne outfit that specializes in search and rescue operations, sometimes under fire or in other dangerous conditions, as well as the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit. This move was driven by a petition to the High Court of Justice by a number of women asking for a chance to try out for more elite combat units.

Speaking to students at Reichman University in Herzliya, Kahana said he doubted that women would be able to meet the physical demands of Unit 669. Kahana, a colonel in the reserves, did not serve in the detachment, but did serve alongside it in the Israeli Air Force, where he was a fighter pilot, after serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit.

Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, who also serves as a fighter pilot in the reserves. (A Socher)

“It is incredibly, incredibly, incredibly hard physically. When we would do joint exercises together, a member of Unit 669 would have to go into the middle of the sea, with class-4 or class-5 waves — those are waves the height of three-story buildings — and have to go into the water, with the gusts from the helicopter sending you in every direction, swim over to the pilot or co-pilot who bailed out of the plane, and use superhuman strength to open the shackle to get them into a harness,” Kahana said.

“I’m telling you, as a former member of Sayeret Matkal — it’s crazy hard! My concern is that in order to have this experiment succeed, they will bring in people who cannot necessarily meet the demands,” he said.

In his position as de facto head of the Religious Services Ministry — he formally stepped down as minister last month as part of a parliamentary maneuver to shore up his party’s stability in the Knesset and now serves as deputy minister — Kahana has advanced a number of initiatives to more significantly involve women in leadership and managerial roles in Israeli religious life and stressed in his remarks that he believed that “equality is an important value.”

“But it can’t come at any price. I don’t think that for that value we necessarily have to go to the extreme for that one ‘Martina Navratilova’ who can do everything I’ve described,” Kahana said, referring to the female professional tennis player who is widely believed to be one of the sport’s best athletes.

The military has said it estimates that no more than a handful of women would meet the tough physiological requirements for these elite combat units.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi lights Hanukkah candles with Sgt. First Class Or Nehamia at the military’s Bahad 6 base, on November 30, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi had endorsed the proposal, saying it balanced “the [military’s] professional and operational requirements, leading to optimal utilization of human capital, alongside maintaining the health of the troops,” according to a statement.

“The committee’s recommendations will be implemented in a professional and gradual manner,” the military statement added.

The new roles for women will be subject to close monitoring and will likely serve as a pilot for the possible opening of other roles for women.

The army has insisted in the past that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a progressive social agenda, saying it requires all the woman- and manpower available to it.

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous experiment with potentially grave ramifications for national security, while defenders generally hail it as a long-needed measure that puts Israel on par with other Western countries.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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