- Arafat's War has deflected attention from unresolved
conflicts within Israeli society, but now and then we receive a wake-up
call. The Israeli army's policy of integrating women into combat units
threatens to renew religious-secular tensions. Hitherto, female soldiers
were utilized as weapons instructors and in support services, which was
acceptable to the religious soldiers who have been assuming an
portion of the combat burden. But the new policy, strongly endorsed by
Israeli feminists, has so alarmed religious Zionists that they have warned
they will boycott units where gender integration undermines religious
standards of sexual modesty.
- The Israeli army is not a "progressive"
university that can dictate residence in a coed dorm for undergrads.
may see integrated units as a steppingstone to achieving gender equality
in Israel. But this equality will be tainted if it is secured by trampling
the tenaciously held values of others and thwarting the no-less-important
desideratum of religious-secular integration. UltraOrthodox leaders fully
enjoy the discomfiture of religious Zionists and are brandishing the furor
as proof that religious observance and military service do not mix.
- A situation that creates intimacy between the sexes,
such as sharing the same tank or cramped quarters on a missile boat, is
utterly unacceptable to an observant soldier. It is tanta-mount to
him to eat pork. Some secularists mistakenly regard mixed combat units
as a libido endurance test. If the observant soldier were sincere in his
commitments, they argue, then rubbing shoulders and other limbs with women
wouldn,t lead to other things. But traditional Judaism not only objects
to the ultimate repercussions of mixed military service, it opposes the
day-to-day reality of such units, which creates an intimacy that should
be reserved for married life. (Plato and Sir Thomas More believed the
prospective bride and groom should view each other in the flesh, since
appraising a marriage partner was as serious as purchasing a horse.
Judaism would never view a woman's body on the level of horse flesh or
as a vehicle to be test-driven.) The army has promised a commission to
study the issue, but the higher-ups are understandably distracted by other
matters, and the crisis is building up.
- The rabbis who have attacked the new policy in radio
interviews are themselves combat officers who prepare their pupils for
combat service. Yet by allowing itself to be intimidated by radical
the army is displaying contempt for an increasingly important reservoir
of military talent. Given the degree of mutual suspicion between Israel's
political subcultures, some religious Zionists view gender integration
as an attempt to block the rise of religious Zionist officers. My take
is that the army is clumsily clutching at political correctness, but if
it doesn,t resolve the issue immediately, it will inadvertently
the conspiracy theorists.
- At the same time, the issue must be defined accurately.
Religious Zionism justifiably rejects a Hobson's choice between abdicating
its moral values or acquiescing in isolation within separate military
units. However, any attempt to broaden this defensive reaction into a
blanket veto on a combat role for women is indefensible. Religious
have no more right to blackball female combatants than radical feminists
have to shove mixed units down their throats. If Israeli women want to
serve in combat units, their individual choice deserves respect and
There is no reason the army can,t establish exclusively female combat
units officered by women. The performance of such units will be
evaluated. This would be preferable to the current situation where
officers charge that women unfit for combat are retained to propitiate
the feminist furies in the media. All-female units will also severely
curtail incidents of sexual harassment.
- Thanks to Oslo, security conditions in some respects
have deteriorated to the level of 1948. This compels Israel to mobilize
a greater share of the population. Women frequently played a combat role
during Israel's War of Independ-ence -- including the defense of the Etzion
Bloc, the Alamo of religious Zionism. If Israel can enhance its security
posture by tapping highly motivated female combatants, so much the
- Indeed, too little effort has gone into building
between traditional Judaism and women's rights organizations on issues
of common concern. Religious Zionism's insistence on modesty is too easily
confused with opposition to equality. The National Religious Party's
is not enhanced by the fact that its Knesset delegation has been
male for over 20 years. Once the issues of modesty and equality are
separated, religious Zionism can find common cause with women's groups
on a number of issues.
- Perhaps a harbinger of a new attitude could be discerned
in the recent Knesset vote barring pornographic channels from cable
Two Meretz Knesset members, Naomi Chazan and Zehava Gal-On, predictably
protested that the Knesset, by enacting the "porn laws,"
blocked Israel's entry into the 21st century. For Chazan and Gal-On,
of the measure by the religious parties meant it was necessarily
But Center Party Knesset Member Nehama Ronen and leading women's activist
Esther Herzog supported the bill. They couldn,t subscribe to the notion
that pornography advanced the standing and dignity of women. It is not
too late for religious Jews and women's organizations to approach the issue
of integrated army service in the same spirit, and by the alchemy of
dialogue transform a confrontation into a win-win outcome.
- Amiel Ungar, a contributing editor of The Jerusalem
teaches political science at Judea and Samaria College in Ariel.
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