All the Scary Ladies

The Israeli military has to face a lot of threats. Iran. Hezbollah. Rockets from Gaza. Women soldiers singing.

If that last item seems out of place, it's because you're reading this in America (where, it's true, presidential candidates can portray contraception as a danger to civilization) instead of reading it in Israel. Here in Israel, the threat posed by female vocalists to religious liberty has been a regular topic in debate of military policy in recent months.

As framed by one side in the dispute, the question is whether Orthodox Jewish soldiers must attend army ceremonies at which they'll hear women sing, even if they believe that such a performance is an utterly unkosher act of public indecency. Framed by the other side, what's at stake are basic military values of discipline and unity.

The army's insistence on men hearing women sing is such a serious attack on religious freedom, according to one prominent far-right rabbi, that "we're close to a situation in which we will have to tell soldiers, 'You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.'"

Lest this cause you concern, the Israeli army does not employ firing squads. For that matter, formal events at which women sing are not part of daily military life. But a soldier who would hypothetically refuse orders to attend such a singing ceremony may also be able to refuse  to take part in a parachuting exercise because the female instructor will tap him on the back, or insist that he cannot run laps behind a female trainer. Such incidents have occurred.

The idea that women should neither be seen nor heard is sufficiently offensive. It is doubly offensive as a misrepresentation of Judaism. But at a closer look, what may be even more insulting is that that women's presence in a central public institution is not the real concern of the rabbis of the far right. Attacking women is a means to an end. The end is asserting rabbis’ power to overrule military orders.

Since faith-based attacks on women's rights in Israel have received some muddled coverage let me pause for a bit of background. There are two quite different forms of Jewish religious extremism in Israel. One is the religious nationalist right, which treats the state, the military, and the Whole Land of Israel—including the West Bank —as sacred. It suffers acute ambivalence toward mainstream Israeli society: lauding it for building a Jewish state while angrily attacking it for its secularism, pragmatism, and willingness to give up "liberated" territory.   That community's strongest base is in West Bank settlements. The other form of religious reaction is ultra-Orthodoxy, a community that tries to segregate itself as much as possible from what it sees as the godless society around it. Most ultra-Orthodox men avoid the Israeli draft through an exemption for full-time students at yeshivot, or religious seminaries. 

The religious nationalist right, on the other hand, has become an ever-growing source of combat soldiers and officers. According to a study published in an army journal, with the author listed only by his first initial for secrecy's sake, the proportion of Orthodox men among graduates of the officers' training course for the infantry rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to over 26 percent in 2008. (Just over one-eighth of all Israeli soldiers were Orthodox.) The change has been fed by two kinds of religious institutions with military ties: In hesder ("arrangement") yeshivot, men alternate between periods of religious study and stretches of active duty in their own separate platoons. In pre-army academies, men undergo a year of physical training and religious instruction before entering the army. In both cases, the instructors are likely to be rabbis for whom right-wing politics come straight from God.

The consequences of this shift began showing as Israel prepared for its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. Sixty leading rabbis of the religious right—including the deans of several hesder yeshivot—issued a proclamation telling soldiers, "It is forbidden for any Jew to participate or assist in dismantling settlements." Other rabbis told their students to avoid evacuation duty without openly disobeying orders. To prevent an epidemic of insubordination, the army avoided assigning infantry units with large numbers of Orthodox soldiers to evacuate settlers. Nonetheless, the army reported that over sixty soldiers were court-martialed. The real number may be higher.

The Gaza settlements are gone. But the potential for revolt in the ranks is still very present. If Israel ever signs a peace agreement with the Palestinians, far more settlers will need to be evacuated from the West Bank. In the meantime, the army occasionally demolishes a few illegally built structures in one of the outposts, the tiny settlements put up since the 1990s to fill in the spaces between the bigger ones. Two years ago, a handful of hesder soldiers held up protest signs—first at a public ceremony, then at a West Bank base—to announce that they wouldn't evacuate settlers. Amid the public storm over politicization of the military, the Defense Ministry suspended a yeshivah with a particularly vocal and extreme dean from the hesder program.

It's no coincidence that the same dean, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, has repeatedly declared in recent weeks that soldiers must disobey orders rather than listen to a woman sing. In his understanding of religious law, a woman singing in public is flagrant immodesty, and women should be silent lest men should become aroused. But his columns in the settler newspaper Besheva make clear that larger issues are at stake. One is power: "Religious law takes precedence over the army's standing orders," he wrote. Religious law, in this case, means the instructions of the rabbis of the radical right. Another issue, in Melamed's view, is whether Israeli society will be guided by rampant post-modernist secularism, the spiritual successor of communism, or by religion. The forces of secularism, in his description, favor sexual permissiveness and oppose West Bank settlement.

To rephrase that slightly, in a manner that Melamed and his colleagues would not accept though it expresses their strategy: For the moment, soldiers aren't being asked to evacuate settlements. Besides, calling for soldiers to mutiny over the obviously political issue of West Bank settlement unites most of the country—including many religious Jews—against the extremist rabbis.

But demanding that men not be required to hear a woman's voice, or serve in too close a proximity to women, is presented as purely an issue of conscience. The voice of conscience, supposedly, is the voice of the far-right clergy. And if the rabbis of the religious nationalist right can establish their prerogative to overrule military orders on this issue, they'll be in a stronger position when the question of settlements arises again.

Of course, silencing and segregating women is itself an intensely political issue, and the supposed protection of religious liberty violates the right to equality. But encapsulating women in the role of temptresses is merely the tactic. The strategic goal is enacting a reactionary political program costumed as religion.

But then, a strategy like that could only be followed in strange, far-away Middle Eastern country. If you're reading about this in America, pay no mind.

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