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Israeli female pilot raises rabbis’ ire

Efforts by extremist rabbis to undermine the historic achievement of Major T., the first woman appointed squadron commander in the Israeli air force, is evidence of the panic they feel.
Israeli Air Force F-15 planes fly during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC157FBE1E80

An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson announced Jan. 16 the appointment of Major T. (her name was not divulged by the army) as squadron commander, making her the first female pilot in this position. But alongside congratulations, there were also rabbis who expressed anger over the appointment and against IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been in far-off India, yet he sent a message Jan. 17 in support of Eizenkot. "I'm proud of this," Netanyahu said. "Not only will I not condemn the chief of staff. I praise him and the commander of the air force. I expect to see more appointments like this."

Despite Netanyahu's enthusiastic response to this historic appointment, he avoided condemning the rabbis' harsh comments. He did not demand that they apologize to Eizenkot, or even to the women now serving in the IDF. Coalition politics may have been behind Netanyahu's decision to ignore the rabbis' extreme comments, even though they bordered on incitement against women or even calls for the troops to refuse orders.

When Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rabbi of the settlement of Beit El and leader of the religious Zionist movement, ruled that it is forbidden to serve in the IDF until there is complete separation between men and women, he was effectively calling on his followers to refuse to enlist. These serious remarks appeared on the website Kipa in response to a young man's question as to whether he should enlist in the IDF, given the way men and women serve together. Aviner's response resulted in an uproar, but they also led Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, rabbi of the town of Safed, to call for the firing of Eizenkot.

Rabbis Aviner and Eliyahu are state employees, with salaries paid by the taxpayers. In this particular case, Netanyahu could have responded sharply or even imposed sanctions against them. Fortunately, Eizenkot proved yet again that he is able to ignore the background noise from extremist rabbis and push full steam ahead with his gender revolution in the IDF. This includes more and more women in combat and command positions.

Attempts by rabbis like these to undermine this achievement are evidence of the panic they are feeling. They have no way to hinder the changes underway, particularly given the media's embrace of the report that the first woman has been appointed commander of an air squadron. Aviner and Eliyahu seem worried that young religious men and women would be exposed and even influenced by the possibility of a more liberal lifestyle, and this leaves the rabbis feeling alarmed.

Figures released over the past few years show that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of religious women who choose to enlist in the IDF. The extent of the phenomenon was first revealed in 2015 when the IDF's manpower division reported that their numbers had doubled over the last five years (starting in 2010). Also, according to these statistics, more religious women are completing the officer training course or serving in combat positions. This takes place despite opposition from rabbis identified with the religious nationalist camp, who encourage girls to volunteer for national service instead of enlisting. While extremist rabbis are fighting against the phenomenon, it also shows how important the army is to expanding gender equality — even among the religious sector.

Social networks and the media have given extensive coverage to the appointment of Major T. as squadron commander. They celebrate her historic achievement. Rabbi Aviner, on the other hand, is more concerned that young religious women will be influenced by her and choose to follow in her footsteps. What makes the story all the more powerful is that Major T. is also married and the mother of two young daughters. This proves that a woman can be a successful pilot without giving up a chance to fulfill herself by having a family and becoming a mother.

That is why it was sad to hear Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich of HaBayit HaYehudi try to put a damper on the public's enthusiasm by dismissing this achievement. He was simply attempting to align himself with the rabbis. In an interview with Kan radio station, Smotrich said, "I am happy for the pilot and wish her success, [but] I have some reservations about the whole campaign being built around this as if it was some kind of growing phenomenon. … Most pilots are men. That's just the way it is and the way it will be for another thousand years."

Smotrich, for his own reasons, derides these women — both secular and religious — and discounts their increasingly important role in IDF combat units.

The Supreme Court first ruled in 1995 that women should be eligible to participate in the air force's pilot course. From that point to the present, dozens of women have met the criteria for this prestigious course. About 50 of them became pilots, including four who served as combat pilots. Meanwhile, the opening of a pre-IDF military academy for women in 2015 led to a rise in the number of women in combat positions by several hundred percent.

Over the last two years alone, Israelis have become accustomed to hearing about women soldiers wounded and even killed in the line of duty. These include two women, Hadas Malka and Hadar Cohen, who served with the border patrol. They were killed trying to prevent two separate terrorist attacks in Jerusalem's Old City. Statements by the rabbis and by Smotrich dishonor the memories of these two bold fighters.

Ever since the founding of the State of Israel, the IDF has been a people's army, charged with an important role in shaping Israeli identity and implementing cultural and gender-based changes in society. The very fact that men and women serve together already has elements of gender equality. For years, women in the IDF have been more than the erroneous, stereotyped portrait of secretaries expected to prepare coffee. They are bursting through more and more glass ceilings — and by doing this, they are making Israeli society much more egalitarian.

The IDF was the first official organization in Israel to take sexual harassment seriously by developing a series of procedures to prevent it. Many of the female officers spearheading this process were intimately familiar with the phenomenon and its scope. There is still a long way to go, of course. Still, it is reassuring to know that the struggle for gender equality both in the military and in civilian life, as well as for equal representation and wages, is well underway, and that progress is being made all the time. Neither Smotrich nor the rabbis can stop this train from chugging ahead, much to the credit of people like Eizenkot.

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