No Touching

As Israel’s military becomes more religious, women are having a really hard time showing men how to hold a rifle.

A female soldier from the 'Karakal' Battalion in action during training.

A soldier from the ‘Karakal’ Battalion during training near the Israeli-Egyptian border in 2010 near Azoz, Israel.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

When 25-year-old Shani Boianjiu served as an infantry instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, her job occasionally involved touching other soldiers—teaching her students how to hold a gun correctly, how to lie on the ground in position, how to protect themselves from enemy attack. Although this was an essential part of the job and made her an excellent instructor, it also caused problems for certain soldiers—that is, for religious male soldiers.

In an essay in the New York Times in September, Boianjiu described what happened when she was teaching a soldier to sit correctly in the field.

 I came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, shaking him. I wanted to explain, ‘Look how easy it is for me to shake you out of position,’ but I couldn’t, because the soldier was yelling at me like he was on fire. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’ What this meant was that he couldn’t touch or be touched by girls or women. I was his superior and trainer, but I was also a girl.

Female soldiers have made tremendous strides in Israel over the past two decades. According to the IDF, women make up 33 percent of the whole armed forces; female officers with the rank of colonel grew by 100 percent in the past 13 years, from 2 percent of all colonels in 1999 to 4 percent today; and the share of female officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, from 7.3 percent of all lieutenant colonels in 1999 to 12.5 percent today. Perhaps most significantly, in March 2011 the IDF appointed Brig. Gen. Orna Barbivay as the first-ever female major general.

Women are still a small minority of officers, but their numbers are rising. This is a significant change, a result due in large part to a landmark court case brought by Alice Miller in 1995 to open up pilot-level courses to women. Although Miller won, it wasn’t until 2000 when the government officially changed the Military Service Law, which now reads: “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.” As a country with mandatory conscription since its founding in 1948—the only country in the world in which women are also subject to this conscription—these advances are significant. Gone are the days when women are relegated to jobs of making coffee and typing men’s memos. Although, according to the IDF, only 93 percent of all roles are open to women—despite the change in law—women are located in far more areas of the Israeli military than ever before.  

With progress come problems, and female advancement in the IDF is particularly problematic for religious men. Rabbis have voiced opposition to a female presence in the army since the establishment of the state. Religious women have always been allowed to claim exemption from military duty if they elect to do national service instead, such as volunteering in hospitals and schools. Debates over army versus national service are fixtures in religious girls’ schools, especially in 11th and 12th grade. These debates are not just, or at all, about individual choice or preference—religious girls (and their families) seek out rabbinical opinions for guidance. One of the most popular sites of the religious Zionist public (meaning the religious community that believes in the existence of the state of Israel and traditionally does serve in the army, rather than the ultra-Orthodox who do not believe in the state and do not serve) is full of queries from girls to rabbis about whether they should do the army or national service.

The Chief Rabbinate is an official government body that has strong ties with the rabbinical units of the IDF (official government body because there is no separation between church/synagogue and state in Israel) and is very influential among the religious population. It has come out with the position that women’s army service is against halakha, religious law. In a particular, popular document from 1987 that was widely recirculated in 2011, as women continued their military rise, then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira wrote, “We should not make peace with a situation in which one third of all female graduates of state religious schools are recruited into the army, and we must therefore ‘attack’ the issue at its core …. The girls of Israel should be educated to withstand temptation, to retain a pure mouth, and avoid sins of being alone in the presence of men, and forbidden sexual relations ….” Women who are drafted are assumed to be at risk of committing those sins.

If the pressure to avoid sin in the military has always been an onus on women, more recently it’s transferred to men. Like Boianjiu’s recruits, many religious men are taught that they must steer clear of certain dangers, such as being touched by a woman, hearing a woman sing, and looking at women. As more women advance into positions of power, or just generally spread out among various units, these actions are harder and harder for men to avoid. Boianjiu recalls her shock when students walked out of her lecture on the topic of grenade launchers, for which she brought an actual grenade launcher to class to demonstrate. “The moment I touched the weapon, one of the soldiers got up from his chair and left,” she wrote in the Times. “Soon, the room was filled with the sound of scraping chairs. I proceeded with my lesson plan until I was left alone with one bespectacled soldier, who had been furiously taking notes. It was only when I stopped talking that he looked up, horrified to find that the two of us were alone.” 

These situations are not confined to the army. An increasingly fundamentalist religious public in Israel seems to be discovering new gender rules every day. In the most radical circles, religious men and women are not allowed to sit next to each other on the bus, stand on the same line in the supermarket, or sit in the same room at weddings, and in some cases they even have separate rooms for family meals. Although these practices are sometimes said to be followed by only a small, fringe of Israeli society, this fringe is a very powerful one, politically. And it’s also the exact demographic that has benefitted from a regulation called the Tal Law, which has, since 1949, exempted ultra-Orthodox men from army service, allowing them instead to be full-time students of Torah.

Today, some 100,000 men are exempted under this law, with only 2,500 ultra-Orthodox men currently serving in the army. But the Tal Law expired in August, and the government is currently scrambling to figure out what to do with these men now.  “There are many groups with an interest in recruiting ultra-Orthodox men into the army,” explained Hadass Ben-Eliyahu of the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Institute. “Beyond the Tal Law, there are strong economic, political, religious, military, social, and cultural pressures relating to [getting] ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF.” These pressures mainly come from secular Israelis, who are angry that the ultra-Orthodox are not required to contribute to Israel’s national security, and from academics who believe that Israeli society will never improve if the Orthodox community remains cordoned off. On the other side, rabbis argue that, by studying Torah, these men are preserving the Jewish identity of the state, its own form of national security, and that any forced assimilation will be disastrous for the religious community. In national polls, popular opinion is on the side of drafting the ultra-Orthodox men. But if this happens—if these ultra-religious men are to become fully integrated into the army—it’s women who are likely to suffer.

Consider these events from just the past few years, as the radicalization of the religious community has grown: Current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger—who, it is worth noting, was investigated for complaints of sexual harassment—came out in favor of religious soldiers being excused from duties that may require them to hear women singing or other unwanted activities. Last year, several male soldiers walked out of events where women soldiers were speaking, sparking a public crisis in which Lt. Col. Ram Moshe Ravad asked to leave his post as chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force because the IDF would not excuse religious soldiers from official army events that feature female soldiers singing. This religious radicalization is undoubtedly affecting army culture, as Boianjiu experienced.  According to Brig. Gen. Zeev Lehrer, who served on the chief of staff’s panel of the integration of women, “There is a clear process of ‘religionization’ in the army, and the story of the women is a central piece of it. There are very strong pressures at work to halt the process of integrating women into the army, and they are coming from the direction of religion.”

Ben-Eliyahu agrees: “It is clear that the more religious men serve, the more of gender segregation command we will see,” she told me. “By command, I mean not only separate units, but also separate tasks, what kinds of jobs are open, entire units or structures that are closed to women.”

The radicalization of religious thought and practice in Israel, which finds expression most emphatically in the increased calls for women’s invisibility in public spaces throughout Israel, is now deeply threatening the advancements women have made in the army.  This is especially significant in a country that assigns the highest personal status—for better or worse—according to military achievements. The expiration of the Tal Law is timed disastrously for Israeli women, who are trying their hardest to get ahead in a man’s world as that man’s world becomes more and more a religious man’s world.

One thing that can be done: The IDF and the Israeli government must legislate commitment to the basic rights of women regardless of pressures from religious groups: the right to speak, the right to sing, the right to stay in a room when religious men enter, and serve in units where religious men serve. As for the ultra-Orthodox: The army doesn’t need to beg them to join. It already has a whole cadre of soldiers who are ready, willing and able to serve—women. So, protect them.