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Israeli women take over IDF tanks

The religious Zionist movement objects to the Israeli army's decision to train female soldiers as tank crews.
A picture taken on November 16, 2017, shows an Israeli soldier driving a tank at an army position overlooking southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Metula, along Israel's border with Lebanon. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) made history Dec. 5. For the first time since the founding of the State of Israel, 13 women completed the Tank Corps' training program and were authorized to serve as regular tank crew members in the forces protecting the country's borders. In just a few weeks, they will conduct their first operational deployment and "hold the line," as it is called in military jargon. In other words, they will be included in the round of troops protecting Israel's southern border. At the end of their deployment, the IDF will decide whether the experiment succeeded and if these young women really are capable of the arduousness of service that is demanded inside an Israeli Merkava tank.

The current assessment is that the decision will be positive and the IDF will officially open up the role of tank crew member to female combat troops. Just a few weeks ago, the commander of the IDF's land forces, Major Gen. Kobi Barak, told Al-Monitor, "We must remember that we are not talking about female tank crews that will be fighting in Lebanon or maneuvering with their tanks in hostile territory at a time of war. We are talking about tanks with all-women crews who will be deployed in the defense of Israel's borders with peaceful nations."

Major Gen. Barak intended his remarks to alleviate concerns and respond to the decision's many critics. They claim that deploying women in combat positions of this kind will be damaging to the IDF's operational capacity. It will lower the physical threshold of demands made of young male combat troops, all in the name of equality, and this, in turn, will have a negative impact on the army's fighting strength. Trying to address these concerns, the army claims that the entire move is being studied in order to derive the appropriate conclusions, and that everything is being done in accordance with the recommendations of experts, with various gauges to measure and supervise these efforts throughout the entire process.

The women tank crewmembers who made history received their "tank badge" at a ceremony at the IDF's main memorial to the Tank Corps in Latrun. They join many dozens of women who already serve as fighter pilots, navigators and aircrews, serving in the Israeli air force ever since it first opened its doors to women in these positions, and to the many hundreds of women in infantry units who serve in what the IDF calls "mixed brigades." These are light infantry units tasked with defending the country's borders, particularly with countries that have peace treaties with Israel (Egypt and Jordan).

Ostensibly, the IDF is spearheading a real feminist revolution, with the enthusiastic support and encouragement of Israeli feminists and women's groups. The reality is that the IDF and Israeli society are paying a significant price for this process. It is tearing at the army and society from the inside, particularly given the sharp opposition from the religious Zionist movement. There has been a sharp rise in their numbers and influence in the IDF over the past few years.

To his detriment, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot is at the center of this fight. The "eye of the storm" is his Joint Service Ordinance, a comprehensive order from the General Staff, which sets the standards for the joint service of men and women in the IDF, particularly in units serving in field conditions. Eizenkot is torn between liberal Israel, along with feminist and women's rights groups, and the religious Zionist movement, which has recently become so integral to the IDF that it could not manage without it.

Joining the commotion is a group of retired combat officers who are not religious but who oppose the integration of women into IDF combat positions out of professional considerations. They use extensive research to argue that the bottom line, when it comes to integrating women into combat positions, is the weakening of the entire system. The inclusion of women lowers the threshold when it comes to the physical demands made of combat troops and harms the IDF's combat fighting strength. According to these officers, there are significant physical differences between men and women. These differences, they argue, lie behind compromises made by the army, relaxing the physical demands made of combat troops. To prove their point, they offered statistics about the enormous number of injuries suffered by women in combat positions, which resulted in the lowering of demands from them and the concurrent weakening of the army at large. With all due respect to egalitarianism, they say, the role of the IDF is to win. It is not to increase gender equality within Israeli society.

Over the past few months, the chief of staff has conducted many long and heated meetings with people on either extreme of this intense debate. He met with a large delegation composed of the rabbinic leadership of the religious Zionist movement, which included Deputy Minister of Defense Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, a member of the religious Zionist HaBayit HaYehudi party. He also sat down with a group of five women serving in the Knesset who are on the front lines in the fight for equality for women. These included Meirav Michaeli and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Camp), Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and others. After deliberating and examining the issue at length, he finally decided to amend the Joint Service Ordinance one last and absolutely final time. A new version of the order was released Dec. 12 to the chagrin of both sides in the dispute. The rabbis claimed that the chief of staff ignored their demands, while feminists announced that he was delivering a blow to the principle of equality by preventing women from serving in combat positions. As he started to feel worn out by this fight, Eizenkot announced that this would be his final amendment to the order. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, people close to him added that if neither side is happy, they must have done something right.

At the center of the current debate about allowing women to serve in combat positions in the IDF is the demand by rabbis from the religious Zionist movement that religious officers be allowed to refuse to serve in mixed brigades. Regular troops in compulsory service can already refuse to serve with women in combat positions, and this will be respected by the IDF. In contrast, officers who volunteer to serve (in the IDF, officers are required to sign on for the career army, in addition to three years of compulsory military service) have not been allowed to make similar demands so far. In the most recent amendment of the ordinance, the chief of staff left the final decision as to where the officer will serve up to the army, though it granted religious officers the right to appeal the decision before the head of the IDF's Manpower Division. It is the kind of compromise that tries to fit a square peg in a round hole.

The rabbis of the religious Zionist movement did not like this compromise. They argue that Judaism insists on strict laws on modesty in all matters pertaining to women in public spaces. While women serving in combat units in the IDF live in separate quarters and use separate restrooms and showers, their very presence in tense and intimate battle conditions presents religious officers and their rabbis with an enormous dilemma.

The IDF's command believes that the revised ordinance will allow the military to continue integrating women in a wider variety of positions, without hurting the many religious troops and officers who already fill its ranks. Regardless, the IDF does not have the privilege to forgo women in combat positions. A slow but steady decline in young men's motivation to serve in combat units has transformed the positioning of women in combat positions from a luxury into a basic necessity. The fact that the light brigades intended to protect the country's borders with peaceful nations is manned by female soldiers frees the army up to deploy male combat troops in high-quality infantry units or to give them advanced training and focus on preparations for a real war.

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