What if Women Were to Say ‘The Army’s Sexist, I’m Not Enlisting’?

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On the occasion of International Women’s Day we should devote some thought to the impact the IDF chief of staff's remarks on feminism have on young women who are about to be drafted

Israeli army

Illustration | Flash 90

Last month Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot set the internet on fire when he said, “I’m neither a feminist nor a [male] chauvinist,” and promised that despite accusations, he did not have a radical feminist agenda. Women’s rights organizations erupted, and there were dozens of posts aimed at trying to explain to him that people no longer talked that way. True, it’s difficult to accuse of chauvinism someone who has done so much to make the most of women’s skills in the army. Just last week, 13 women completed Armored Corps training and were deployed as combat troops on the southern border, as part of a trend that began a few years ago, led by Eisenkot, to open up as many positions as possible to women.

Since then, dozens more insulting comments were made in general in the public sphere in Israel, and it might have just been better if that statement had been tucked away in the duffle bag of unfortunate remarks. It was an unnecessary apology for courageous steps.

But on the occasion of International Women’s Day, on Thursday, we should still devote some thought to the particular impact these remarks have on young women who are about to be drafted. These are women whose motivation the army takes for granted and does not fear that the day could come when these women say: “Enough. Not at any price.”

These young women see front-page pictures of women pilots and hear about the first woman squadron commander in the history of the IDF, but before they can finish uttering the cliché about the sky being the limit, they read statements by rabbis mocking these not-women women, with whom something has gone haywire, and they know these rabbis are welcome at the office of the chief of staff.

Young women facing conscription read on the army’s website about the variety of options they have. They are impressed by the fact that 90 percent of IDF units are now open to women. But before they begin to dream, they see the head of the Personnel Directorate telling a rabbi at a conference of the religious Zionist movement that the army is not “a company for social equality,” as if equality is a product and not a value that the IDF — yes, the IDF to — is committed to. These women want to join combat units, to break the glass ceiling so that other women can follow them, but they read about religious soldiers threatening not to enroll in certain training courses because they are co-ed, and no one from the establishment puts them in their place.

Motivated women, excited about making the most of their skills in order to make a contribution, are willing to work hard and meet significant challenges, but over and over they witness an agreement to exclude them and insult their dignity so as not to anger other groups. They see that no other group would be asked to be a little less offended because the security situation requires them to keep their complaints to themselves. They understand that the most important thing is to let the IDF win, but they know that they are the only ones from whom it is expected to give up their rights to this end. They know this because when they replace the word “women” with the term “religious people” for example, it doesn’t work.

When the army’s personnel chief said, around the time women began training for integration into tank crews, that he wasn’t sure so many women were needed on tank crews and therefore he wasn’t sure women would serve as such (“I still don’t know if it will work. It might not work, and it could be that if it works, – we won’t need them”), his statement sounded reasonable. But no one said there was no need for so many male tank-crew members, so we might not allow all graduates of army preparatory programs to serve in the Armored Corps.

Or, for example, when they want to integrate ultra-Orthodox men in the army, it sounds reasonable to prevent women from entering their field of vision and demand that women accept with understanding when they are excluded from certain spaces in order to fulfill this important need. But if we try to imagine — just imagine — that the ultra-Orthodox simply can’t stand to see the knitted skullcaps of the modern Orthodox because it might expose them to bad influences, and a similar request made of soldiers with knitted skullcaps: “If you don’t mind, don’t be offended, it’s really nothing personal, just don’t go into the dining room while they’re eating.”

These women understand that integrating women into the IDF is a real challenge. They understand that taking the needs of religious soldiers into consideration is sincere and important and cannot be ignored. They all realize the need to maintain operational readiness. But they also know by now that there is no justification to demand of them what no one would dream of demanding of other groups, just because people have gotten used to the fact that they can.

These women do not have a fleet of rabbis supporting them who will threaten a boycott. They might continue being accused of seeking to poison the army with liberal extremism every time they mention the word equality, and there might be a long road ahead of them until they have the power to signal that it won’t be this way forever. But International Women’s Day is not a bad time to remind everyone that one doesn’t have to be a feminist to give women what in any case, by virtue of any standard, they simply deserve.

First published in the Haaretz.