Saturday, July 23, 2011

Education, Sexual Harassment, & Religious Radicalism

Sayeret Matkal spent the weekend on my kibbutz. The Israeli army’s premier special-forces unit did not just come for cheap hotdogs and steaming summer afternoons (a meat factory and the heat are what the kibbutz is most famous for). Two dozen support staff from the unit visited the kibbutz in order to deepen their understanding of religious Judaism. They came to see a religious community in action. And they left having successfully crossed the gulf of ignorance and misinformation that keeps religious and secular communities in this country so far apart. The kibbutz served as the bridge across that gulf, providing an example of how religion can be shared with secular soldiers in a way that deepens their sensitivity and self-knowledge rather than cheapens Jewish tradition and worsens intercommunal strife.

Unfortunately, secular soldiers are rarely exposed to Judaism so sensibly. In a final report issued to the chief of staff a month ago, the outgoing chief of military personnel reviewed the most pressing issues faced by the army. Underlining the entire report is a clear message that the military must get a grip on religious radicalization, otherwise the cherished image of the IDF as the “people’s army” will be no more.

The rising tide of religious radicalism in the military is largely expressed through discrimination against women. Using trumped up claims of sexual modesty, religious officers and members of the military rabbinate (a division of the army charged with ensuring food is kosher and religious rituals can be observed within the force) have pushed to keep women out of many military assignments.

The personnel chief’s report, together with another report by the chief of staff’s advisor on women’s affairs, is filled with examples of gender discrimination. In one case the top graduate of a course, a female soldier, requested posting in a particular battalion (a privilege accorded to the top graduate) only to be rejected because the religious officer commanding the battalion did not want women as staff officers. The number of female shooting instructors has been cut back following complaints by religious combat soldiers that they do not feel comfortable receiving instruction from women. In the Intelligence Corps, religious cadets demand that female instructors teach from behind tables. Religious soldiers from hesder yeshivot—institutions that combine religious studies with military service—protest the presence of female staff soldiers (responsible for tasks like education and social-services) in their units. In one infantry brigade, a religious commander requested that no mixed entertainment troupes be sent to the base. Military ceremonies have come under particular criticism. Voices within the military rabbinate have called for forbidding women from singing (such as at a recent Yitzhak Rabin memorial event) and even placing floral wreaths during military funerals. In an example of an issue not concerning women, religious soldiers have complained that military tours of Jerusalem reference Islam and Christianity. “A Jewish army does not have to talk about other religions,” a religious soldier insisted in speaking out against the tours.

The irony of all this sexual discrimination is that the army once had a serious problem with sexual harassment. Today’s women are again threatened, but now due to modesty gone wild rather than sex. The shift reflects the growing presence of religious soldiers in combat units and command positions (previously discussed here). Twenty years ago less than five percent of officers were religious; today the figure is nearly thirty percent. The increasing dependence on the national-religious community, especially in light of the decreased motivation to serve in more secular sectors, obliges the army to take greater heed of religious soldier’s demands.

In a recent series of Haaretz articles, sociologist Yagil Levy, who has studied the IDF closely, argued that a “critical mass” of religiously observant soldiers in field units and at command levels has strengthened demands for shaping the army’s culture in the spirit of “thy camp shall be holy,” alongside unofficial arrangements in some units. Levy claims that senior officers are paralyzed when dealing with religiously volatile issues, and that the General Staff has resigned itself to the military rabbinate’s expanded role vis-a-vis the religious education of secular soldiers. The next stage is under way, he says: a rise in manifestations of “gray” refusal and politically motivated rebelliousness by soldiers, with the army afraid to confront them.

Others think the army has become a battlefield for “external” players, to its detriment. As a friend remarked, “Like everything else in this country, the internal battle gets waged through the army. Religious harassment against women is no different.” Haaretz quoted a religious officer providing a more subtle analysis. “What the secular public doesn’t understand is that religious Zionism is not monolithic but a collection of sects and tribes,” explained the officer. “Some of them are using modesty in the IDF as a pawn against other rabbis. Some of the problems are imaginary; rabbis inflate them for their needs and the army takes fright. When you ask religious soldiers in the field, you find there are other things that bother them, and women’s modesty is not necessarily at the top of the list.”

In light of these tensions, the visit to my kibbutz by the noncombat arm of Sayeret Matkal is all the more remarkable. Not only for the sensitive way in which the largely secular troops engaged religion. But because seeing that sensitivity applied to educating soldiers is all too rare. Outside of elite units like Matkal, soldiers are rarely exposed to any degree of sensitizing educational programming. As far as I am concerned, a key problem in the army is the education corps. The problem is not so much bullying by the religious radicals as a plain and simple failure by the corps to do much educating.

Even with limited resources, the education corps could do so much more. Funding is not necessary because the training soldiers undergo—the land upon which they march, the hills where their forerunners sacrificed so much—has all the necessary tools to create historically informed, ideologically astute troops. The key ingredient is a motivated platoon leader, a lieutenant made to understand by the education corps how critical it is that he intertwine lessons about the country’s land and people into his soldiers’ training. My lieutenant in the air force was an outstanding example in this regard. He truly believed in the need to make Zionism and the country’s history a living and breathing part of our training. A week did not pass without a lesson about the significance of where we trained in the history of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Every platoon leader could follow his example if the army, through the education corps, took to heart the responsibility of creating a “people’s army.”

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