October 19, 2018

Shocker: Many Israelis object to women in the military

Six years ago or so I wrote an article under the headline A Voice of a Woman. The controversy it covered involved a few IDF cadets who left a ceremony because of their religious objection to hearing a female soldier singing. The cadets were disciplined, and the country debated their action for a day or two. Religious Israelis cried that if the IDF wants them to be a part of it – it ought to consider their religious sensitivities more seriously. Non-religious (and many religious) Israelis responded by arguing that discriminating against women to please the religiously-sensitive soldiers is something that the IDF cannot do.

The problem was never solved – as a recent controversy that has been preoccupying Israel in the last few day days proves. The IDF needs its women soldiers. It needs its religious soldiers – who have become its most ambitious group of fighters. It needs to adjust itself to the society of which it is a part. As I wrote then: “there is no simple way to balance these competing rights. Religious soldiers can’t be made to violate their faith. The military can’t be made to alienate its most motivated group of soldiers. And I can’t educate my daughter to serve in a military that would excise women from the public sphere to accommodate the radical demands of the super pious.”

Earlier this week, a rabbi came under heavy fire for bluntly speaking against women serving in the IDF. His message was not unique. Many rabbis – most rabbis – object to women serving in the IDF. His tone and style was unique. He was rude and dismissive and, frankly, quite disgusting. So it was easy for everybody to focus on his style rather than on his principled objection to a certain trend of opening IDF units to women.

This is not the first time that Rabbi Levenstein makes waves by speaking vulgarly about trends he does not approve of. A few months ago he called LGBT Israelis “perverts” – and was fed a similar dose of condemnation. The reason some Israelis – but not all of them – are so furious with Levenstein is the position this rabbi occupies. He is the head of a well-known religious academy that prepares its students to serve in elite military units. Some of Israel’s best and brightest military leaders began their military careers in his academy. Rabbi Levenstein educates these future leaders in ways that contradict the beliefs of many other Israelis, which he perceives as “too tolerant, liberal, secular and Western.”

Being repulsed by the rabbi’s choice of words is one thing. Very few Israelis defended his language this week. Being shocked by his message was less unanimous. Minister Arye Deri, of the religious party Shas, was interviewed on the radio this morning and opened his remarks by reminding the listeners that according to most rabbis women ought not serve in the military. In fact, the state of Israel recognizes this religious objection. There is a mandatory draft in Israel, but religious women are exempt from it. All they have to do is declare that their religious beliefs prevent them from being drafted – and that’s it. They are off the hook.

How does one reconcile the condemnation of Levenstein and his views with Israel’s official policy? It is possible to reconcile the two if all we have against Levenstein is a complaint against his language. It is impossible to reconcile the two if Levenstein’s views are the issue. If, as Haaretz Daily argued this morning, “an individual who holds such chauvinistic views cannot be part of a system that prepares thousands of religious youths for military service.”

Israel tolerates the views of people who object on principle to women serving in the military. It tolerates them because these are the views of many Israelis. In fact, Israel must tolerate these people and their beliefs – as much as these people must tolerate Israel and its beliefs. Because there is no “Israel” without these people. They are Israel. A part of Israel. An important, influential, at times frightening, at times awe-inspiring part of Israel.

It is easy to declare Levenstein beyond the pale and ostracize him. He makes it easy by expressing his views in a vulgar manner. But his views concerning women serving in the military – his objection to women serving, his more stringent objection to women serving with men, his even more stringent objection to women serving in combat units with men – are the views of many Israelis. The IDF cannot ignore these Israelis. Israel’s political leadership cannot ignore them. Our society cannot pretend they aren’t there. It must accept their entitlement to have their own views, it must debate them, accommodate them, find common ground with them.

It must recognize that condemnation is easy – accommodation is not.