World & Nation

Balancing needs of women, ultra-Orthodox men in Israel’s military

Balancing needs of women, ultra-Orthodox men in Israel’s military
An Israeli female soldier receives her graduation cap after a march in the Negev desert this month.
(Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Israel’s highest-ranking female soldier says efforts to draft male ultra-Orthodox students into the Israel Defense Forces should not come at the expense of women’s advancement in the army.

Last year, the nation’s Supreme Court determined that a legal exemption for the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service was unfair, and the issue is a top legislative priority of the newly formed Israeli government.


Orna Barbivai, 50, Israel’s first female major general and commander of the army’s personnel department, says the nation has come a long way in integrating women into meaningful military professions, including allowing them to serve as pilots and in a special combat battalion with 60% female members. Though women are not sent to the battlefield, Israel is the only country in the world that drafts them.

With Israel’s defense challenges, Barbivai says the army needs all the soldiers it can get, including women and ultra-Orthodox Jews.


But balancing the needs of women and ultra-Orthodox men, whose religious beliefs demand segregation of the sexes in many circumstances, would present new challenges.

Can the ultra-Orthodox coexist with women in the army?

It requires effort and planning, but it is possible and well worth the investment. The army needs both the ultra-Orthodox and the women. Efforts must be made to provide a balanced, meaningful service for both.

With the understanding that 30% of first-grade pupils in Israel are ultra-Orthodox, the army has to plan ahead and ensure its ability to draft both men and women in a way that will enable the army to carry out its assignments. Combining the ultra-Orthodox draft with meaningful service for women will take careful, wise implementation and require a balance between the draft and universal values of equality. These values go beyond the specific issue of religious men. The task is to create conditions that allow men and women to share any environment effectively, not only a combat environment.


How do you feel about the U.S. move to open up combat positions to women?

This is a fascinating move, I am following it closely. We will be watching the implementation and results of this decision. I am keen to see how this develops, and perhaps we will learn from it too.

Israel has also experimented in this area with Caracal, a mixed combat battalion with 60% women. Women may hold combat positions but aren’t sent to the battlefield. What is the main obstacle to integrating women into the battlefield?

The determining factor is the assignment, the mission, and the ability to carry it out. Physical capabilities are also a factor.... Undoubtedly, there are women with physical capabilities that far exceed those of men. We see them every day in sports and many other fields. But they are still relatively few.


Is concern over abductions and captivity a factor in keeping women off the battlefield?

We have women pilots, and women who carry out operational assignments over the borders and beyond the lines with great success. We’ve turned a mental corner on this and I think there are no more psychological blocks to women in operations or questions about their capabilities.

How do you assess the army’s experience with Caracal?

The battalion’s abilities and its contribution to the security it provides citizens and the state are equal to that of any other combat battalion. Our evaluation is based on their performance, not gender.

The women soldiers of Caracal are in life-threatening situations, certainly, but they are trained for certain kinds of assignments. The army’s mission remains training the mass of its soldiers for the battlefield and, for now, women are not there. As more avenues open for women in the future, this may change.

Is the IDF ready to be led by a female chief of staff?

A chief of staff must be a commander who served in the field, commanded soldiers in the battlefield and rose through field ranks. A chief of staff orders soldiers into the battlefield into life-and-death situations. It must be the absolutely best and most experienced person to give such orders. So long as women are absent from the classic battlefield, they will lack the building blocks ultimately required for such a position.

What sort of accommodations has the army made to integrate women into more military professions?

Considerable effort has been invested in adapting infrastructure and technologies to afford better integration of women and better utilization of women in certain fields. If a position in a flight squadron required physical force for lifting of heavyweight bombs, a special lift was designed and deployed for this purpose to allow maximizing the potential of women’s placement in this position. Obviously men enjoyed this as well but this is an example of gender-minded planning already at the planning stage of opening more military professions to women.

Also as more women reach field positions, other accommodations include adapting gear such as body armor to better suit female anatomy; this enables women to carry it better, be more flexible and mobile and in turn be more effective. This too requires advance thought, the understanding that women are a resource to be integrated alongside men, it is a wise investment and well worth it.

Off the battlefield, are women entirely equal in the army?

The main difference remains the duration of service. Currently we would like to move in the direction of standardizing the length of service to correspond with profession rather than gender. Currently women serve two years, men three years. The current thinking is for men and women serving in identical positions to serve an identical length of time.

Forty-two percent of the women in every age bracket are not drafted, compared to 25% of the men. This is a disturbing figure that makes women’s service almost voluntary. Most are exempt on religious grounds, which the law enables quite easily, perhaps too easily as some declarations are found false. This is disturbing not only for military purposes but also in terms of equality and society as it perpetuates gaps.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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