The Bible and the Sword: The intersection of gender bias

by Dr. Ofra Graicer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 July 2012 00:02 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Dr. Ofra Graicer

Well into its seventh decade, the State of Israel is still battling over core issues of identity. A westernized democracy in origins, Israel is facing a rising wave of religiosity, which threatens secular individuals and women in particular.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence settled the potential contradiction between the Zionist movement’s two primary systems of values - faith and democracy - with some compromises. But it was David Ben-Gurion, the first, mythological Israeli Prime Minister, who acknowledged, “Some issues would have to be resolved by future generations.”

One such compromise was the exemption of ultra-orthodox men and women from military conscription. In 1951, exempting 400 brilliant Yeshiva students from mandatory military service so they could devote their life to studying the Torah could pass as homage to the value of faith. But by 2012, this exemption includes an astonishing 55,000 ultra-orthodox men.

The issue is much larger than statistics of military service. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is not just the protector of the nation and its citizens. As the “people’s military,” it serves as a cultural and social melting pot of an increasingly diversified society. The IDF is thus a microcosm of social issues in Israeli society at large. 

During the past decade, the IDF began (involuntarily) moving in two parallel directions – the integration of females into combat positions and the drafting of ultra-orthodox males. The first process occurred after a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 declared the IDF’s policy of banning females from fighter pilot training to be discriminatory and unconstitutional. That ruling triggered a massive organizational shift, opening most combat roles to women (all but special forces and attack units). This was a major step in the direction of true integration of females in the force. Today, many combat-support and field instruction roles are almost exclusively handled by females. 

The second process was the result of the 2002 Tal Bill, a parliamentary legislation that attempted to set up a mechanism for drafting ‘Haredim’ (ultra-orthodox). Under this bill, Yeshiva students can postpone military service for six years (ages 18-23), after which they choose between three options: return to Yeshiva; find a job and do partial military duty; or perform 18 months of national service.

The few Haredi who have enrolled in the IDF under this bill (about 11% of the total Haredi population; versus 90% of non-Haredi Israelis who are drafted) demanded a special environment and certain conditions of service, such as kosher meals, designated prayer times and Torah lessons, and - most fundamental – a female-free service. There were to be no women at base, no female instructors, and no female commanders or co-soldiers around them.

These two processes – of ‘proper integration’ of both female and religious soldiers - have contradicted each other to the point that the IDF had to stop juggling. Despite the few Haredi who have enlisted, an inordinate number of positions are being closed off to females (albeit informally) as a result of ultra-orthodox demands. An outside survey conducted for the IDF Chief of Personnel during 2011 showed that female soldiers are consistently undermined and discriminated against personally and professionally. For example, artillery officers have been removed from command of their battery due to the deployment of religious soldiers; fitness instructors are under orders to dress ‘modestly’; and women have been banned from singing and participating in formal ceremonies.

In February 2012 the Supreme Court annulled the Tal Bill, and mandated that it be revised or repealed by August. In response, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government assembled a parliamentary committee to review the bill and propose a solution.

At the end of May, the Israeli Women in Security and Policy Forum – among them former generals – testified in front of this committee to present the following recommendations:

  • Cancel the exemptions for Haredi and all other groups of Israeli citizens (including Israeli Arabs and orthodox women) so that the burden of military service is shared equally (or substituted in some way);
  • Equate terms of duty, commitment, and sacrifice that may justify privileges;
  • Employ a new model for military service (selection, training, deployment) that sets one standard for all soldiers and is based on merit, not gender;
  • Commit to a gender-based quota that ensures women are represented in key military positions and senior ranks;
  • Educate female soldiers about their rights and establish a hotline for reporting discrimination due to religious influence; and
  • Look at the entire picture - don’t solve one national problem at the expense of another.

These recommendations are critical to ensuring that the growing trend of discriminatory treatment of women in both the Israeli military and the public sphere does not continue. But they could do much more – while having the potential to turn the IDF into an extremely effective military machine, extracting the best from the entire human pool – it may return to society citizens who are molded through equality and quality, not gender, politics, or faith.

Unfortunately, the members of the committee were unable to reach consensus on these fundamental issues, leading the Prime Minister to dismiss them last week. This week, facing public disapproval and disagreement within his governing coalition, Netanyahu formed a more intimate team to finalize an alternative Tal Bill that provides a working formula of ‘civilian justice’ to the middle class.

Yet, it’s crucial that the influx of Haredi into the IDF does not come at a cost for women. History shows that when the Bible and the sword get in the mix, women are usually those who pay the price. Why? Because gender bias is the only principle where those two ancient establishments, military and religion, see eye to eye. 

Dr. Ofra Graicer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Intelligence Research in the Israeli Defense Forces and a member of The Institute for Inclusive Security’s coalition of women leaders in Israel.