Josef Olmert

Religious Zionism crisis over women in IDF — A turning point

Rabbis are like all of us when it comes to expressing their opinions. They have a full, unqualified right to do so, while we, the audience, whether we are ”religious”, ”secular”, ”atheists”, or simply ordinary watchers of what they say and write, have the full right to take them seriously or not, to respect or disrespect, to believe that they are people of vision, morality and courage, or just ordinary political propagandists. So, being an interested watcher of what rabbis have to say, I , for one, relate to a lot of rabbis, mainly in US, but also in Israel, as belonging to the latter group. High pretensions to represent and defend ”Jewish values”,”human rights” and so many other great ideas, , but in reality, being totally politicized, by simply reserving all these noble causes for the defense of the enemies of the Jewish people and Israel, and doing it on behalf, and with the financial support of purely political organizations. That said, I, for one, also am getting less and less impressed with Orthodox rabbis, some of whom are the most vocal in support of the settlement project[which I also support ideologically], and yet are coming out in forceful way against changes in the IDF, which I very much welcome, and in the process, going all the way to the point of calling to refuse to serve in the IDF. They do it, while publicly criticizing the same IDF for not doing enough to defend settlers against murderous Palestinian terror attacks. Easy to dismiss it as sheer chutzpah, or the insignificant voice of few, so why bother, but I take it seriously.

The latest example is the attack of some prominent Religious Zionist[?] rabbis on the IDF , following the brave,timely and right decision of General Eisenkot to appoint first woman as a commander of a squadron of the Israel Air Force [IAF]. Some politicians from the Jewish Home party have joined the fray, their leader Naftali Bennett made the right call by supporting the decision, and some other prominent rabbis, led by the venerable Rabbi Chaim Drukman, also expressed support for the IDF. This is a healthy debate within the Religious Zionist movement, but it cannot be restricted to them only. Those of us, who do have strong sympathetic feelings towards this important movement, have the right to be part of the debate. From day one of the existence of Gush Emunim [The Bloc of the faithful], the mother movement of the settlers, this was a subject of discussion.

For people like me, the attraction of Emunim bloc was the opportunity, as I saw it, of linking the Nationalist, non-Orthodox Right Wing, led then by Menachem Begin with the emerging new Nationalist-Religious Emunim Bloc, turning its back to the old Mizrachi Zionist movement which was , in actual terms, a sister party of the old Mapai-Labor party. This political union was achieved, being one of the reasons for the overall political change in Israel, as of 1977. However, I, as well as many others in the non-Orthodox Likud of old days, wanted to see a larger , wider merger. The expectation was, that the political union will be based on a meeting of expectations and aspirations, by making concessions to each other, not by abiding by diktats of one ally towards the other. The Religious side is the one which broke this alliance by bringing down the Shamir government in 1992, a fatal mistake, when realizing that the inevitable outcome of that , was the Oslo process. Yes, the uncompromising settlers and their leaders in 1992, were responsible to the the Oslo process. This is just one , though dramatic example, but there were other areas of life, in which there has developed disappointment, some will say simple realistic understanding , of the limits of cooperation between Religious Zionists and the non-religious ones. Issues like easing up the process of conversion to Judaism, and yes, sure enough, gay rights, and the integration of women in all strata of society, and in the IDF as well.

The current debate raises again the question whether the IDF should be be the vehicle of social change in Israeli society or not, and I, personally, liked and continue to like the idea, that being such a central element of Israeli society, by definition obliges the IDF to be also an engine of social change. From my perspective , it includes also a greater effort to include non-Jews. Rabbis who oppose all that, while advocating policies which require a strong IDF to defend and uphold them, are simply acting immorally and also commit a major political error. When dealing with the political aspect of the debate, we turn to the Jewish Home party. Here is the test of Naftali Bennett and his style of leadership. He is a leader who already instituted profound changes in his part, for example, the role of Mrs. Ayelet Shaked, a non-Observant person, as the no.2 in a religious party.
He and others in the party, are having a problem on their hands now, as They need to make a stark choice and to unequivocally defend and support the changes which are taking place in the IDF.

It is a stark choice, because it could cost him politically in the short run, as some rabbis will oppose such policies and leave the party, but it will pay him political dividends later on, as many, who are not happy with Likud of these days will find a real, inclusive home in the Jewish Home party. This could be a real turning point, not just for the political benefit of this particular party, but for Israeli society in general.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina