Religious Israeli Soldiers - Serving
With Women Is Like Eating Pork
By Amiel Ungar
The Jerusalem Report

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 ever-increasing 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" American university that can dictate residence in a coed dorm for undergrads. Feminists 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 compelling 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. Religious 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 feminists, 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 corroborate 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 Zionists 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 encouragement. There is no reason the army can,t establish exclusively female combat units officered by women. The performance of such units will be objectively evaluated. This would be preferable to the current situation where anonymous 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 better.
Indeed, too little effort has gone into building coalitions 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 credibility is not enhanced by the fact that its Knesset delegation has been exclusively male for over 20 years. Once the issues of modesty and equality are clearly 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 television. Two Meretz Knesset members, Naomi Chazan and Zehava Gal-On, predictably protested that the Knesset, by enacting the "porn laws," effectively blocked Israel's entry into the 21st century. For Chazan and Gal-On, endorsement of the measure by the religious parties meant it was necessarily anti-women. 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 constructive dialogue transform a confrontation into a win-win outcome.
Amiel Ungar, a contributing editor of The Jerusalem Report, teaches political science at Judea and Samaria College in Ariel.

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