A recent event that took place during a parachute equipment demonstration at a military base near Jerusalem has put the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and its human resources policies on the defensive. The incident occurred on August 8, when a group of Orthodox soldiers turned away from the presentation because a woman was conducting it.

Initial reports claimed that fifty IDF recruits from an Orthodox school were involved. Later, others said the actual number was closer to thirty.

The episode was first reported via Twitter by the parachute instructor‘s mother, Shira Margalit. According to the Times of Israel, Ms. Margalit runs a “. . . popular women’s news website.” That same article cited the parachute instructor‘s father as Major General Aharon Haliva, the head of IDF Operations.

As soon as the information became public, the controversy began. Here are some of the issues under contention:

The Number Who Turned Away

As stated, the original estimate of fifty soldiers who participated in the action later shrank to approximately thirty.

Judgments of Those Who Turned their Backs

The IDF and several women’s and human rights groups condemned the actions of those who turned away. Orthodox groups defended those same actions as acceptable compromises, given the clashing demands of military unity on the one hand, and strictures demanding separation and modesty between the sexes on the other. Israel National News quotes one Rabbi as saying that, from a religious point of view, “. . . the soldiers acted correctly . . .” in turning their heads “. . . in order not to see the female instructor perform the exercise.”

Who Made the Decision?

Controversy also surrounds the origins of the action. Initial reportage implied that the soldiers engaged in the activity spontaneously. Later, two more versions came forward. The first was that one soldier received permission from one Reserve officer, who authorized that cadet to pass that “OK” along to his peers. However, IsraelHayom.com reports that several officers gave the recruits specific instructions on arranging themselves in “three’s” to manage the process of turning away from the parachute instructor. With so many conflicting stories, the group dismissed the event as “fake news.”

Female Parachute Instructor Snub Generated Worldwide Controversy

Female Parachute Instructor Snub Generated Worldwide Controversy

How the Incident Was Handled

Another bone of contention is over how the IDF responded to reports of the incident. Initial descriptions said that the group’s commanding officer “had a conversation” with the recruits after the event, making it clear they would be ousted from the parachuting course if they continued to show disrespect to woman instructors. Several women’s rights groups challenged whether the reprimand went far enough.

Under the pressure of criticism from both sides, the IDF stiffened its position, including officers in the group who shared the blame. IDF Human Resources Directorate Commander Moti Almoz stated in Israel National News that, “. . . excluding women in the IDF . . . is a serious command problem and we will not make do with declarations and headlines, but rather deal with the issue in a substantive way.”

Other Pressures

Added to the international embarrassment and disruption of the ranks that the recent incident caused, the IDF is facing other pressures as well:

Increasing Advancement and Success:

As more women join the IDF’s ranks in combat roles, a number of them are moving into valued positions of mastery and authority. While the parachute instructor issue was unfolding, for example, the IDF was also in the process of promoting their first woman to flight squadron commander.

Growing Numbers of Recruits:

Induction of women into the IDF’s ranks recently topped 1,000 per year. That’s 10% more than last year and almost twice as many as in 2012. Interestingly, the number of Orthodox men joining the IDF is also growing. This increase in enrollment among Religious men is encouraged by the existence of specialized military units in the IDF – called “Hesder” units — that have not previously been required to interact with women combatants.

What’s Next?

There is little question that this head-turning incident was vaulted into the headlines because the parachute instructor‘s mother is a well-known journalist, and her father is head of IDF operations. How the situation will be resolved moving forward is still unclear. It is evident that there is significant work to be done by the IDF, the Orthodox community, and women in the Israeli military to find a way to synch their activities while valuing the rights of all parties.

What is clear is that woman in the IDF are rapidly becoming recognized as highly proficient pilots, parachutists, and instructors, and that they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment and their competence.

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