The IDF: Challenged by Feminism?

This morning’s news brought Israeli listeners three items concerning the IDF. The first and most urgent was the terror attack across the Egyptian border in which a civilian employed by the IDF was killed. The second was the newest “public letter” voicing concern over government/IDF policy. This was written by a number of former high-ranking female officers. They decried the growing “religious extremism” in the IDF which, according to the signatories, negatively influence women’s standing in the armed forces. They fretted that plans for equalizing the defense burden by drafting Haredim may not “take into account gender implications” for female soldiers. Third, there was a report by the veteran reporter, Carmela Menashe, on the IDF’s complaints department which was concerned with an increase in “verbal violence” by officers towards their commands. From name calling—“stupid, shut up, baby”—to questioning whether a soldier’s suicide might not be bad for the unit, the IDF is wondering whether the rank and file are all too bombarded with adversarial language. According to Menashe, the IDF wants its officers to keep better rein on their tongues.

These three stories taken together paint a picture of the terribly complicated role that the IDF needs to play in Israeli society. Obviously, we still live in a nasty neighborhood which, like it or not, does not allow us to let our guard down for a moment. Today’s attack took place on the long Egyptian border, itself currently a fomenting cauldron of the unknown. The fact that the civilian worker, Sa’id Pashafshah from Haifa, was a non-Jew who was working on constructing a new border fence, adds another layer of complexity to the entire episode and could in itself be spun into an essay on the intricacies of modern Jewish nationalism. (I wish his family my heartfelt condolences in these too familiarly horrid circumstances).

But, back to all of this morning’s headlines: It has been jokingly (or nastily) said that Israel is an army to which a country is appended. A truer statement would be that the IDF—for all of its foibles as both a generic military machine and a uniquely Israeli invention—is a real “people’s army.” Yes, despite the profanation of that term by dictatorial regimes who use brute military force against their own nations, in countless ways the IDF actually is an army of the people and for the people: A common denominator in a multifarious society. For countless immigrants over the years, the IDF has served as the great Israel-ifier of their absorption. For countless natives, it has been the great melting pot where religious and secular, farmers and city-dwellers have met and forged battle-tested bonds. As such, though, it is also a reflection of our society’s tensions and troubles. Despite the ethos that would leave the IDF above the fray of politics—whether personal or party-oriented—one cannot truly expect it to remain untouched by the swirling seas of conflict which are part and parcel of the Jewish state.

One could theoretically link the officer’s worries to those expressed by the IDF itself as part of the overall feminization of the military. The IDF’s female contingent is more integrated than ever before in the army as a whole and this is making itself felt in such pronouncements about “good manners.” Don’t officers really have more to worry about than hurting the sensitive feelings of their soldiers? Isn’t actually getting the damn job done and mission accomplished more important than saying please and thank-you? Can’t we ignore “process” and focus—like men—on results!? Yes, getting yelled at isn’t pleasant (I still cringe when I think about my own boot-camp experience)—but come on….

However, I believe that something else is at play. First, in many ways, the integration of women into the IDF might very well be seen as a struggle against feminization. Several studies have suggested that fighting women are in essence fighting to become more masculine and not the reverse. (Back in the day, I was barked at by female commanders as well as males). One feminist sociologist described to me a scene wherein Israeli female combat troops scoffed at new recruits (all boys) by using an old army chant which entails standing with their rifles sticking out between their legs and offering the boys the chance to…you get the idea. Whether one thinks that such things are good for the Jews or not probably depends upon one’s thoughts about feminism, Zionism and things in between. For better of worse, though, a picture taken this morning of the scene on the border showed a number of young women soldiers alongside of a male soldier—all carrying the same M16s.

So, in a sense, these officers are worried about the re-feminization of women in the IDF. This, they fear, may be the result of the increasing participation of those who view life quite differently than do they. The main problem is that the value of “modesty” is important to most religious soldiers. And by this, I mean not merely the supposedly cruel “segregation” of women. Modesty is in fact a way of lessening the vulgarity that the very physicality of life entails. There is an idea that certain private things are meant to be kept private, and not openly discussed or even flaunted. So the coarseness of language and action which often accompanies “masculine” pursuits such as learning to wage war is foreign to religious soldiers. (Think of how many curses, gestures, etc. are basically perversions of the intimate). I myself, a kollel student at the time of my induction recall being offended by the vulgar words which my company commander had written on his cap. (As an immigrant, nearly 10 years older than he, I felt no compunction about asking him to remove it). The hesder and other religious soldiers are young men who will marry as virgins (and value this) and who would not for example, swim with or have the type of physical contact with women considered normative in secular circles. These “religiously extreme” soldiers are indeed devoted—devoted as soldiers who quite often feel that military service is a privilege and not only a burden, and equally devoted to religious values—including introducing and safekeeping some measure of sanctity into the understandably too-often grotesque rough-and-tumble military world. (Understandable, because this is essentially the framework where killing another human is what it’s all about and coarsening one’s self is the simplest way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that this, for most recruits, entails.)

The early Zionist ethic of creating a new Jew—a “muscle Jew” (see Max Nordau) has been tempered to a large degree through the understanding that Jewish culture and renewal in Israel requires both mind and body. However, the macho sabra ethos hasn’t completely died out and may be, to some extent, holding out in the IDF. Are women’s accomplishments in the army being threatened by broadening the cultural underpinnings of the IDF? Or is an erasure of gender differentiation—by moving only towards a type of hyper-masculinity—being questioned by allowing those for whom this is not a given access to important roles in the IDF?

I’m not sure if there is some actual connection between the increased verbal coarseness reported by Menashe and the worries voiced by the female officers. I would argue, though, that at least part of the solution to the former is just the non-marginalization of the religious soldier who is “troubling” enough to warrant the attention of the latter. Yes, these soldiers will not blindly accept the secular ethos that in the race for gender equality has too often trivialized “feminine” models of caring and cooperation (which are hallmarks of the beit-midrash-centered world)—but neither will they be the ones heaping insults on hapless new recruits. For all our faults—the religious community does community—communal care and concern—very well. Degradation may yield obedience, but it will not, in the end, build the type of cohesive strength needed by the IDF to win the continuing war on Israel.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.