This is a story about three soldiers--Benny Gantz, Orna Barbivai and Eran Niv. You may not know them. But you should know who they are because they help run—and could ruin—the IDF.
Our story starts in January 2011 with two unrelated events. The first was a decision by Israel’s Cabinet to increase dramatically IDF recruitment of ultra-religious (Haredi) youth. They had two reasons for that decision. First, IDF recruitment was dropping; and second, the army had reported that, with proper accommodation, ultra-religious—and other religious—youth would indeed enlist. That accommodation included time for daily Torah study and prayer, special attention to dietary requirements and reduced exposure to women. These accommodations had been designed specifically for the Haredi, but everyone understood that when the needs of all religious soldiers were met, morale and recruitment rose. The Cabinet’s decision was simple and clear: accommodate the religious, recruit, build the IDF.
The second event that affects our story was a report in Haaretz, “A wise move”, (Asher Pfeffer, January 7, 2011). This essay introduced us to Colonel Eran Niv, who had been appointed in 2010 to Command the Officer training school, Bahad 1. The report praised Niv as a leader who promoted a ‘return’ to secular values in the army.
The next month—and unrelated to Colonel Niv—Lt. General Benny Gantz became Chief of General Staff (COS), Israel’s top military officer. In May, Gantz promoted Orna Barbivai and appointed her Director of IDF Manpower. At the time of their appointments, nothing was reported about the attitudes of Gantz and Barbivai towards the religious in the IDF.
By the beginning of June, 2011, the players were in place--Gantz, Barbavai and Niv. Our story was ready to begin:
-July 2011: a report commissioned by the Advisor to the Chief of Staff on Women’s Affairs concluded that, “soldiers who refuse to hear women sing out of Halakhic [religious] considerations should not serve as officers in the IDF.”
-September, 2011: on orders from Colonel Niv, nine religious officer-training-cadets were expelled from their training program because they refused to stay at a ceremony where a woman sang. Five of these soldiers were readmitted after they had officially ‘apologized’.
-November, 2011: when Rabbis objected to the expulsions, General Gantz spoke of the ‘victims’ of this incident. He did not mean the expelled soldiers. He meant the singing woman.
-A report appeared that General Gantz had given General Barbivai the task of “integrating females with religious male soldiers in the same unit”, something that had been specifically prohibited by agreement between the IDF and Israeli religious leaders.
-December, 2011: Major General Barbivai announced that religious soldiers can be excused from ceremonies where women sing only if their commanders allowed; the Jerusalem Post announced, “Barbivai says that commanders’ authority comes before Halacha” (Jewish religious law).
-January, 2012: Arutz Sheva reported that Haredi soldiers had been ordered to clean toilets in women’s barracks. This order, Arutz Sheva reported, “clearly contradicts the terms of service [not to enter women’s quarters] to which the IDF committed itself when” recruiting religious soldiers.
-General Gantz announced that “no soldier will be allowed to absent himself from official military ceremonies, even if it conflicts with his religious observance.”
-One day later, the IAF (Israel Air Force) Chief Rabbi resigned from a special Haredi-religious soldier program because these anti-religious actions were, he claimed, a “breach of the IDF commitment” to religious soldiers.
-The day after the resignation, MK (Member of Knesset) Moshe Gafni announced that the women-singing ruling by General Gantz “flies directly in the face of previous agreements.”
-Retired Judge Tzvi Tal, a respected Jurist who had worked on Haredi-IDF enlistment issues, spoke on Voice of Israel radio and said, "I think this matter of women's singing is strange. No one forbids women's singing. There is a group that thinks that for religious reasons, it must not listen to women's singing. So why force it upon them? Why do the 'knights' of freedom of expression and the 'knights' of minority rights want to force this upon a minority?"
- Responding to criticism of IDF treatment of ultra-religious soldiers, the IDF said, “the scope of integrating haredim in the IDF has grown, and the intention is to double their numbers every year…Unique frameworks have been defined for haredi soldiers” [emphasis mine].
- Eliyahu Lax, Chairman of the Organization for the Religious Soldier, declared that public promises by the IDF “to make army service more religious-friendly do not materialize on the ground”.
-February: two religious (non-haredi) officer-cadets-in-training were expelled from their training program for praying morning prayers. MK Zevulun Orlev called Gantz and Barbivai directly responsible for IDF treatment of religious soldiers.
-Religious soldiers file a formal complaint against Training Commander Eran Niv for hostile treatment of religious officer-cadets.
Today, forty-two per cent of officer-cadets are religious. Their numbers are growing. The enlistment rate of religious youth from the so-called ‘settlements’ is almost double the rate of secular youth from Tel Aviv. Religious enlistment is going up as secular enlistment stagnates or drops. This is today’s reality in the IDF: the religious have become increasingly important in both military command and elite combat units. It seems that every year the IDF depends more on observant Jews and less on disbelieving Jews. Leaders who create a hostile environment for religious soldiers not only behave in a manner that is unprofessional (religious belief has nothing to do with fighting competence), their behaviour is against the explicit decisions of their civilian superiors. Their behaviour is unacceptable. It endangers our military preparedness because it is the religious (not the secular) who aggressively volunteer for combat.
This story focuses on three soldiers--Gantz, Barbivai and Niv. It is a story of betrayal: promises to the religious--betrayed; decisions by superiors to accommodate religious soldiers, to build the IDF--betrayed.
Are these the military leaders that Israel can afford to have?