Religion and Gender in the Israeli Defense Forces

Book Excerpt

When twenty-five-year-old Shani Boianjiu served as an infantry instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, her job occasionally involved having to touch other soldiers—teaching her students how to hold a gun correctly, how to lie on the ground in position, or how to protect themselves from enemy attack. Although this was an acceptable part of the job and made her an excellent instructor, it also caused problems for certain soldiers, specifically religious ones.

In an essay in the New York Times in September 2012, Boianjiu described the first time this happened. She was teaching a soldier to sit correctly in the field. “I came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, gently shaking him. I wanted to explain, ‘Look how easy it is for me to shake you out of position,’ but I couldn’t, because the soldier was yelling at me like he was on fire. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’ What this meant was that he couldn’t touch or be touched by girls or women. I was his superior and trainer, but I was also a girl.”

Female soldiers have made tremendous strides in the IDF over the past two decades. According to the IDF spokesperson’s office, women make up 33 percent of the IDF, female officers with the rank of colonel doubled from 2 percent in 1999 to 4 percent today, and the percentage of female officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, from 7.3 percent in 1999 to 12.5 percent today. Moreover, over half of all soldiers in officer courses are women. During the last three years, an average of 55 percent of all staff officers in the Officers’ Training Course were women, an average of 53 percent of those OTC graduates went on to become officers in combat support positions, and an average of 3 percent of all combat officers were women. Perhaps most significantly, in March 2011, the IDF appointed Brigadier General Orna Barbivai as the first-ever female major general.

From the statistics, it’s clear that women are still a small minority of officers, but their numbers are rising. But as a country with mandatory conscription since its founding in 1948—the only country in the world in which women are also subject to this conscription—these advances for women are significant. Gone are the days when women in the army are relegated to jobs of making coffee and typing men’s memos. Also, even though, according to the IDF, some women only serve in 69 percent of the 93 percent of all roles that are open to them, they are present in far more areas of the Israeli military than ever before.

But as Shani Boianjiu’s example shows, women’s advances are also potentially problematic for religious men. And this could signal the beginning of a troubling trend for women in the army. 


Reprinted with permission from The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014).