In the beginning of March, the Israeli air force posted a promotional video it called “Feminine Power” to Facebook. The video, a little over a minute long, showed women in various roles in the air force, from operational officers, mechanics and war room commanders to navigators and combat pilots. Over the action, a narrator hinted at criticism of anyone who tries to distance women from combat roles in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). “They say,” goes the narration, “that women can’t be fighters, they’re not built for it, are not physically suited to it, and they should stay at home with the kids. They say that women can’t serve in operational roles. Her poor kids. Her poor husband. You can’t really do it, and women don’t have what it takes. So they say.”
The video quickly went viral and sparked a public uproar in Israel before it was taken down. It turned out that the video was produced and posted without coordination with the IDF. It was viewed as arguing against religious and conservative forces that have in recent years waged a rearguard battle against opening many combat roles in the IDF to women. In light of this sensitivity, the IDF decided to simply remove it from the web. But the structural tension between the two poles won’t be resolved by the video’s removal.
The IDF is a reflection of Israeli society, and it too is torn between two opposing poles: Western liberalism still sets the tone in Israel and has turned Tel Aviv into one of the global LGBT capitals and produced an impressive number of women pilots, navigators and combat air crew members. At the beginning of the year, a woman pilot was appointed to command an air squadron for the first time. The air force already has a woman combat navigator who serves as a deputy squadron commander and many other women in senior operational roles.
On the other side are those who oppose women’s combat service in the IDF. Leading them, of course, are rabbis of the religious Zionism stream who have waged all-out war against the phenomenon in recent years and have called on IDF chiefs to stop integrating women into senior roles. Leading Zionist rabbis have been quoted as railing against women’s military service in sermons that sound as though they were delivered in an earlier time, when women were more relegated to staying at home, raising children and caring for their families. The influence of these rabbis on the IDF is significant, as graduates of religious Zionist institutions make up a substantial portion of the IDF's combat officers and about 40% of those who finish officer-training courses.
Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot has to navigate a narrow and dangerous path between hostile and resolute forces. There's a powerful and influential feminist lobby, but the influence of the religious Zionist rabbis and the conservatives has also grown greatly in recent years. Israel of 2018 is far more conservative than in previous decades. It’s doubtful whether the IDF could manage without the graduates of religious Zionist institutions, most of whom volunteer for combat units and some of whom continue beyond compulsory service to serve as officers.
The story doesn’t begin or end with the air force. The IDF today has six coed infantry battalions where women fighters serve alongside men in every role. Last December, the first tank crew course for women ended after training three female tank crews. The final preparations are now being made for a course for women tank commanders. The rabbis are instructing their students to refuse to serve in coed units and in combat roles alongside women.
To this complicated equation, we can add another variable that makes it truly impossible to solve: ultra-Orthodox military service. Unlike religious Zionists, the ultra-Orthodox are exempt from military service. Despite the rule, a growing number of ultra-Orthodox enlist. Today thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis serve in the IDF, some of them in special battalions that accommodate their religious needs, but they also have a presence in intelligence units, in the air force and elsewhere. The ultra-Orthodox, far more conservative than the religious Zionists, are making the “melting pot” of Israeli society boil over. While the IDF makes an effort to open up as many roles as possible to women, establishing coed infantry battalions and staffing tanks with female crews, it also makes special accommodations for the ultra-Orthodox, creating service situations in which these soldiers are not forced to encounter or ever see a woman.
The task of the chief of staff is to square the circle, to find a way to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox who serve, to continue to enjoy the devotion and service of tens of thousands of religious Orthodox and at the same time to continue the process of opening the IDF to women as combatants and officers of equal status to men.
It’s doubtful that there is such a formula. There are also those who aren’t religious or conservative who claim that the entry and presence of women in combat forces and training courses lower the physical and mental requirements to enable women to succeed and pass various physical tests. The role of the IDF, says this group, is not to advance equality in society but to win wars. We must not compromise on combat readiness or its demands, even if it’s for the sake of including women, they say.
Eizenkot has no intention to stop the integration of women or to force them out of positions they have already attained. Eizenkot is a practical person who responds to his critics with numbers. The six coed infantry battalions enable the IDF to tailor training to the units. The coed battalions in which women serve have been charged with security of the “peaceful borders” of Israel (those with Egypt and Jordan), freeing the IDF's regular battalions to devote their time to training. Since the chief of staff sees his main task as preparing the IDF for war, he has no intention of giving up what has been achieved. All of the sides will simply have to get used to the new reality.