Women leap from the front lines to the headlines
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Hebrew media review

Women leap from the front lines to the headlines

Debate over mixed-gender IDF units rages in the pages of the Hebrew-language papers, after rabbis demand army chief's removal over his policies on females in combat

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative. Female soldiers in the army's Infantry Instructors course take a water break during an exercise on November 19, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)
Illustrative. Female soldiers in the army's Infantry Instructors course take a water break during an exercise on November 19, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)

The frustration felt by many citizens of the Jewish state over the growing chasm between religious-conservative and secular-liberal values in Israel is reflected in today’s Hebrew-language newspapers, as pundits and analysts pretty much across the board denounce calls for draft evasion issued by prominent right-wing rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who went as far as saying that the IDF’s chief of staff should be fired for promoting women’s service in combat roles.

“Woman combat soldiers: The secret to the IDF’s success,” writes Israel Hayom’s Maayan Adam, who is an officer in the army reserves herself. “The comments against women’s service no longer manage to anger me; they even lead me to feel pity. It is easy to notice that behind the patriarchal discourse stands a distress call from a handful of scared men,” Adam says, adding that there can be no turning back now that women have been introduced into the army’s various combat units.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. (FLASH90)

“In the end, the IDF is the sum of all its parts, the people of Israel in all their variations, technology and soul, men and women, that is its secret of success.

“That’s where it draws its strength from, and any attempt to remove one of its components will knock down the body in its entirety… without women, the IDF will lose its power,” Adam concludes.

Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

A similar sentiment can be seen in Yedioth Ahronoth, where contributor Yossi Yehoshua assesses that the statements made by Eliyahu and others on the more ultra-Orthodox end of the religious-Zionist movement stem from a fear of a loss of control over the public discourse, exemplified by the fact that even many religious Israelis no longer believe women should not or cannot serve in combat units.

“Religious Zionist women are enlisting in droves, and 2017 marks the year in which the most religious Zionist girls enlisted ever — 2,700… a fourfold growth rate in five years,” Yehoshua writes.

Furthermore, according to Yehoshua, counter to the arguments made by Eliyahu, religious Zionist men have not abandoned combat units as a result of the increase in the number of women serving there; in fact the opposite is true. Yehoshua adds that in the past three years, not even one case occurred in which a man decided to leave any mixed-gender units due to opposition to serving with women. “It is too bad that too many ultra-religious Zionists — both rabbis and MKs — are stoking the flames, stirring up unnecessary controversy, and provoking hatred.”

It should be noted, in fairness, that Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the national religious Jewish Home party, has unequivocally denounced calls by rabbis for draft evasion.

In Haaretz, surprisingly, not much coverage is dedicated to the IDF-rabbi-women controversy, and instead the focus is, still, on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s fiery speech earlier this week, in which he claimed, among other things, that Israel was established as “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism” to safeguard European interests.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Gideon Levy —  a prominent left-wing commentator, an outsider in the eyes of a large proportion of the Israeli public, and by no means a stranger to controversy —  attempts to defend the Palestinian leader’s words, incidentally and perhaps unwittingly tearing into the Zionist enterprise’s most sacred pillars in the process.

“[Abbas] said colonialism, and the self-victimizing Israelis yelled: ‘anti-Semitism.’ Nobody said what was incorrect in his speech and what was anti-Semitic about it,” Levy writes. “When a sinking colonial power promises a country it isn’t ruling yet to a nation whose absolute majority doesn’t live in it, while ignoring the nation that does – what is it if not colonialism? When more than half the country is promised to less than a tenth of its residents, what is it if not a terrible injustice?”

Levy gets so carried away in his unapologetic criticism of Zionism that he perhaps lets Abbas off the hook too easily. After all, the Palestinian Authority leader was in the best case less than accurate, and in the worst truly echoing anti-Semitic talking points, when he accused Zionist statesmen in the 1950s of deliberately stirring trouble in Arab countries in order to forcibly move Middle Eastern Jews into the sparsely populated nascent state of Israel.

It seems that in Levy’s view, at the end everything boils down to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Problematic opinions, per Levy, may be swept under the rug as long as they contribute in raising awareness to the price of the Jewish state’s control of territory beyond the Green Line.

“Establishing Israel served the imperialist West,” Levy continues. “Abbas is right. Israel is seen as the last Western outpost against the Arab savages, as South Africa’s apartheid regime was seen by the same West as the last outpost against the communists and the blacks.”

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