Gender Integration of IDF Combat Units is a Supremely Moral Issue

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Despite the significant changes resulting from the expansion of women’s service in IDF units, gender still remains a criterion for screening the assignments of military personnel in 2021

Flash 90

A week before International Woman’s Day, the Israel Defense Forces reached a major milestone in the inclusion of female soldiers into its various units. A team headed by a Major General, created to study the feasibility of opening up combat units to women, met to listen to the opinions of civilian representatives on the issue, in advance of drafting its recommendations.

The decision to set up this team came mainly against the backdrop of a number of petitions submitted to the High Court of Justice, requesting that it order the IDF to consider the inclusion of women for those units that remain closed to them, including elite units. These petitions, which reflect the growing demand that women be allowed to serve in such positions, provide an opportunity to examine various processes impacting Israeli society and its call for realizing the principle of equality in the armed forces as in other arenas. .

The IDF is one of the few militaries in the world that conscripts women. Women have served in Israel's military since its establishment in May 1948; the Defense Service Act 5709-1949 provided the statutory basis for their compulsory service in the Women’s Corps. Over the years, women were assigned to various units as a function of defense needs and in keeping with the people’s army model. A significant turning point in the expansion of women’s military service resulted from the ruling in the Alice Miller case, in which the court stated that women are entitled to real formal equality of opportunity in their military service. In its aftermath, the Defense Service Law was amended to include the provision that “the right of women to serve in any position in the IDF is equal to that of men.”

Since that amendment, which was meant to permit women to volunteer for roles that had previously been closed to them, an increasing number of units opened their ranks to women. After the Alice Miller ruling that women must be allowed to serve as pilots and navigators, 14 roles were opened up to them, one after another, including as sailors, service in the Military Police, and in antiaircraft batteries. The number of military roles which women can hold has continued to increase. In the 1980s, only 55% of positions were open to women; in 1995- 73%; and in 2012- 86%. According to data published by the IDF, in the last six years the number of women serving in combat infantry units has ballooned by 160%. The same report indicates that today, women account for 18% of combat soldiers. However, the “assault echelon” has remained open to men only.

As a result, despite the significant changes resulting from the expansion of women’s service in various units, gender remains a criterion for screening the assignments of military personnel. Let there be no doubt: How the IDF classifies and assigns its personnel is not merely a technical matter. It is a moral and social issue of primary importance. For this reason, the question that the team referred to above is examining, is first and foremost one of principle. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, will the IDF continue to assign its soldiers on the basis of gender, thereby erecting an insurmountable barrier to women’s admission to some units; or will it follow the trend in other democracies , opt for substantive equality, and assign its personnel only on the basis of professional standards ?

In Israel, as in the rest of the world, the demand that all units be opened up to women is not the wild notion of a handful of women, but rather reflects women’s growing desire for self-fulfillment at every major juncture of their lives. Even though society is still very far from achieving full equality of opportunity, the IDF seems to be one of the last organizations that explicitly make gender a screening criterion. Even if it is reasonable that for the armed forces, in contrast to other organizations, gender is relevant to the placement and assignment of personnel, this does not justify the total exclusion of more than half of those serving in the army. . What is more, the large number of petitions on this matter that are currently pending before the court is evidence of the growing discontent among those who reject this exclusion; we may assume that the number of petitions will continue to increase until plausible arguments are offered against them. This is why the expectation of a serious discussion of the ethical and social issues involved is imperative not only from a normative perspective; it also reflects the IDF’s pragmatic need to take into account this demand.

Here it is appropriate to quote what the British Defense Secretary said in 2018, when Her Majesty’s Government announced that all military units would henceforth be open to women: “For the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not by gender.”

However, unlike other armed forces, the IDF faces a unique issue, as a conscript army in which women serve alongside observant men who have a religious obligation to comply with principles of modesty and gender-segregation. How the IDF copes with this issue of “joint service” is anchored in the Joint Service Order, which is the outcome of lengthy discussions with various civilian representatives. A main stipulation of this Order is that before he is assigned to a particular unit, every observant soldier must be asked whether he has halakhic scruples about serving in a mixed-gender unit. If he answers in the affirmative, the IDF will direct him to a gender-segregated unit.

Even though this Order does not address the question of women’s service in the IDF and the expansion of the units open to them, in both the public debate and the IDF’s discussions, the question of joint service is linked with the fundamental issue of women’s service in various units, and mainly in combat units. One indication of this is the inclusion of the IDF chief chaplain in the forum convened by the team working on this issue.

Yes, the IDF is obligated to protect the dignity of all those serving within it, , both women and men. But after anchoring the rights of religious men in a formal order and permitting them to serve in single-sex units, it must not allow considerations related to joint service, including the limits associated with gender-separation and modesty, to have any bearing in the discussion of the units in which women can serve . Despite the linkage of the issues, the IDF must distinguish between them. To bar women from serving in certain units because of pressure exerted by religious groups and the fear that observant men will refuse to serve in mixed units is unacceptable, and is an infringement of women soldiers’ right to equality. The weight of this consideration is redoubled by the fact that the women's service in the IDF is compulsory.

Like any change, the admission of women to units that have always been viewed as men-only, will come with a series of challenges, and its fruits may not be harvested for a while. Nevertheless, as with all significant changes, it is essential to make a decision to start on this path way.

  Service model Positions opening to women Percentage of women in officer corps and senior command Major milestones
United States Volunteer Since 2016: all job categories are open to women 19.5% of officers
12.1% of senior commanders
1978: Women’s Army Corps (etc.) disbanded; its members are assigned to serve alongside men in all service branches and units
Great Britain Volunteer Since 2016: all job categories are open to women 11% of officers
4.8% of senior commanders
1989: Women first permitted to fly combat aircraft
1990: Women first permitted to serve on warships
1991: Gulf War: First deployment of women to a combat zone
Norway  Compulsory, but only 17% of each age cohort actually serve Since 1985: All job categories are open to women 10% of officers
8.9% of senior commanders
1990s: Women first trained as combat pilots, helicopter pilots, and submarine commanders
2012: Women appointed to command the submarine fleet (first in Norway and the world)
2014: Establishment of a Special Operations Unit for service in Afghanistan, staffed by women
Australia Volunteer Since 2016: All job categories are open to women 20% of officers
12% of senior commanders
1990: Most restrictions on women’s service in combat support roles have been lifted; women are still not allowed in direct combat roles
Sweden Since 2017: compulsory service for men and women; in practice, only 4%–8% of each cohort actually serve. Since 2010: All job categories are open to women 5.7% of officers
23.38% of senior commanders
About 10% of operational units are women-only
1989: All officer positions are open to women, including combat officers
France Volunteer Since 2015: All job categories open to women 15% of officers
5.6% of senior commanders
1996: Because of a quota system, a qualified female candidate did not receive officer rank
Israel Compulsory As of the present: 86% of job categories are open to women 25% of officers
10% of senior commanders
1995: Alice Miller ruling requires the IDF to permit women to apply to flight school

The article was published in the Times of Israel.