Last week, as International Women’s Day approached, the Israel Defense Forces reached a significant milestone in the inclusion of female soldiers into its various units. A committee headed by a major general, established to study the feasibility of opening up combat units to women, met to hear the opinions of civilian representatives on the issue ahead of drafting its recommendations.
The decision to set up this team came against the backdrop of several petitions submitted to the High Court of Justice requesting that it order the IDF to consider the inclusion of women for those units that remain closed to them, including elite units. These petitions signify not only growing demand that women be allowed to serve in such positions, but rising public support for realizing the principle of equality throughout Israeli society.
The IDF is one of the few militaries in the world that drafts women. Women have served in Israel’s military since its establishment in May 1948; the Defense Service Act 5709-1949 provided the statutory basis for their compulsory service in the Women’s Corps. Over the years, women were assigned to various units as a function of defense needs and in keeping with the people’s army model. A significant turning point for women’s military service came in the mid-1990s ruling in the Alice Miller case, in which the court stated that women are entitled to real formal equality of opportunity in their military service. In its aftermath, the Defense Service Law was amended to include the provision that “the right of women to serve in any position in the IDF is equal to that of men.”
Since that amendment, an increasing number of units opened their ranks to women. After the Alice Miller ruling that women must be allowed to serve as pilots and navigators, 14 roles were opened up to them in quick succession, including as sailors, service in the Military Police, and in anti-aircraft batteries. The number of military roles women can hold has continued to expand. In the 1980s, only 55% of positions were open to women; in 1995, 73%; and in 2012, 86%. According to data published by the IDF, in the last six years, the number of women serving in combat infantry units has ballooned by 160%. The same report indicates that today, women account for 18% of combat soldiers. However, the elite combat echelon has remained open to men only.
As a result, despite the significant expansion of women’s service in various units, gender remains a criterion for screening the assignments of military personnel. Let there be no doubt: How the IDF classifies and assigns its personnel is not merely a technical matter. It is a moral and social issue of primary importance. For this reason, the question that the aforementioned committee is examining is first and foremost one of principle. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, will the IDF continue to assign its soldiers on the basis of gender, thereby erecting an insurmountable barrier to women’s admission to some units; or will it follow the trend in other democracies, opt for substantive equality, and assign its personnel only on the basis of professional standards?
In Israel, as in the rest of the world, the demand that all units be opened up to women is not the wild notion of a handful of women, but rather reflects women’s growing desire for self-fulfillment at every major juncture of their lives. Although society is still very far from achieving full equality of opportunity, the IDF seems to be one of the last organizations that explicitly make gender a screening criterion.
Even if, when it comes to assigning personnel, gender is a more relevant consideration in some aspects of the armed forces than it is in other organizations, this cannot justify the total exclusion of more than half of those serving in the army.
What’s more, the large number of petitions on this matter that are currently pending before the court is evidence of the growing discontent among those who reject this exclusion. This is why a serious discussion of the ethical and social issues involved is imperative. The IDF must take wider social values into account.
This idea was encapsulated in the United Kingdom, for example, when Her Majesty’s Government announced in 2018 that all military units would henceforth be open to women and the British Defense Secretary said: “For the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not by gender.”
The modesty challenge
Unlike other armed forces, however, the IDF faces a unique challenge, as a conscript army in which women serve alongside Jewishly observant men who have a religious obligation to comply with principles of modesty and gender-segregation. How the IDF copes with this issue is anchored in the Joint Service Order, which is the outcome of lengthy discussions with various civilian representatives. A key stipulation of this order is that before a religious soldier is assigned to a particular unit, he must be asked whether he has halakhic scruples about serving in a mixed-gender unit. If so, the IDF will direct him to a gender-segregated unit.
Even though this order does not address the question of women’s service in the IDF and the expansion of the units open to them, in both the public debate and the IDF’s discussions, the question of joint service is linked with the fundamental issue of women’s service in various units, and mainly in combat units. One indication of this is the inclusion of the IDF chief chaplain in the forum convened by the team working on this issue.
Yes, the IDF is obligated to protect the dignity of all those serving within it, both women and men. But after anchoring the rights of religious men in a formal order and permitting them to serve in single-sex units, it must not allow considerations related to joint service, including the limits associated with gender-separation and modesty, to have any bearing in the discussion of the units in which women can serve. Despite the linkage of the issues, the IDF must distinguish between them. To bar women from serving in certain units because of pressure exerted by religious groups and the fear that observant men will refuse to serve in mixed units is unacceptable, and is an infringement of women soldiers’ right to equality. The weight of this consideration is redoubled by the fact that the women’s service in the IDF is compulsory.
Like any change, the admission of women to units that have always been viewed as men-only will come with a series of challenges, and its fruits may not be harvested for a while. Nevertheless, as with all significant changes, it is essential to make a decision to start on this path.