Tell the Rabbis: Officer Training School has become a mixed unit

Expose: The Besheva newspaper brings testimony from religious cadets and officers of grave conduct at OTS in violation of standing orders.

Avishai Greentzweig, Besheva ,

טקס Graduation ceremony at Training Base 1
טקס Graduation ceremony at Training Base 1
צילום: דו"צ

IDF Joint Command caused a stir among religious Zionism in general and in the Hesder yeshivot and preparatory schools in particular, following planned changes that will harm the religious life of the soldiers and officers in the army.

But now it turns out, according to exclusive testimony obtained by the weekly Hebrew newspaper Besheva, that even the liberal standing orders are consistently violated inside the prestigious IDF base - Officers Training School (OTS), known as Training Camp 1. Cadets and officers reveal conduct contrary to the orders regarding the mixing of sexes, both in training and sport as well as residential and lodging arrangements. It should be noted that the number of religious cadets training in Base 1, according to estimates, is not less than forty percent, but this has not prevented the high command denying many of them their religious rights.

Complaints have been received in recent months at the 'Tzav Echad' organization for religious soldier's rights, as well as at the Forum for Reserve Army Chaplains, from religious cadets and officers who have completed their training in recent years at the base. The soldiers did not readily agree to talk about what is happening at the training base. Even after they were promised that their names and identifying information will not be exposed, they are still afraid to be dismissed from the course and from officer's training after testifying.

Carrying female soldiers on their backs

Two months ago the Education Corps held a pre-Shabbat event about two hours before Shabbat which consisted of a performance by the band Joya. The religious soldiers in the Dekel battalion asked to be released from the event due to women singing, but the battalion commander ordered the company commanders not to exempt the religious soldiers. The soldiers claimed that the order violated the recently established standing orders. Although religious soldiers are required to attend official ceremonies with women singing, they are exempted from recreational performances where women are singing. The battalion commander, for his part, refused to exempt them on the grounds that it was an official ceremony, and he had the authority to compel them to attend.

But women's singing is a less serious problem today at Training Base 1. Cadet Avi (not his real name) describes the events in Gefen Battalion, where infantry officers complete their training: "Our battalion has four companies; not one is designated as gender-separate. We asked them to establish a separate company for religious soldiers, but the request was denied."

Part of the training involved hand-to-hand combat training by a female instructor, attended by male and female cadets together. Religious cadets wanted to practice without women, but also here were refused. Avi, who participated in the training, tells of a number of religious soldiers, graduates of religious preparatory schools, who were afraid to refuse and had to punch women soldiers in the stomach in training. Sports were also mixed, with male religious cadets going for runs with female cadets, while the latter were wearing shorts.

Cadet Shlomi (not his real name) also tells of his feelings: "Our feeling is that the religious needs of soldiers disturb the system. All the religious feel that way. They do not have a personal problem with us, but the general atmosphere is that they feel that religion is a heavy burden on the system."

How does the problem manifest itself?

"Instead of concentrating on operations, we constantly need to make sure that we are not assigned guard duty with a female soldier, that we are not assigned to practice one-on-one with female soldiers, that we weren't accidentally assigned to navigating alone with a female soldier. This is a daily challenge, and unfortunately not everyone is able to meet it."

Is separation at least maintained during the cadet's rest and sleep time?

"Absolutely not. The girls residence is together with ours, on the same floor. Even the secular soldiers hate it. Boys must not enter the girls barracks, but the girls do come into the rooms of the boys. It does not interest any of the commanders. Everyone is afraid to open his mouth. People are afraid to be ousted from the course."

And what is happening in the field?

"In the field the situation is even worse. In Hadas Battalion, a female soldier came into my tent to wake me for guard duty. Female squad commanders slept in the same tent with male squad commanders. For sleeping in the field, male and female cadets slept together, one right next to the other and sometimes one on top of the other. This atmosphere is not suitable for a religious person. "

And exercises?

"Even during training exercises we were forced to deal with problems all the time. Commanders demanded that religious soldiers lift on their backs female soldiers who were simulating the wounded. Usually they did not demand it from religious soldiers on purpose, but from a lack of awareness. I refused firmly, but not everyone is able to withstand the pressure of a commander shouting at them: "Even in war will you say you do not carry injured girls?! " {Of course,when there is real danger to life, girls would be lifted, ed.) The exercise was stopped following Shlomi's refusal to carry a girl on his back.

What are the religious soldiers afraid of? Why did they not stand up for their rights?

"No one wants to be labeled the troublemaker. You know that all the time they are watching you closely and if you focus on every little deviation from the rules, they may ultimately dismiss you. There is also the Sociometric test that examines how friendly you are, and it is clear that if we complain all the time, we will receive a very low test score. You have to really push and fight to get your rights kept according to the standing orders."

What message would you want to send to the Yeshiva heads?

"Tell the Roshei Yeshivot that we are in a mixed battalion. That Gefen Battalion in Training Base 1 has become a mixed battalion."

Oded (not his real name), a religious officer who completed training in the Gefen Battalion in the previous cycle, also describes a grim reality: "The master sergeant does seriously enforce separation in the girl's quarters, but girls may enter the boy's quarters freely, and not one of the commanders told them anything. We had a case when a female cadet came into the room and saw a boy cadet without his clothes on."

Can soldiers to whom modesty is important get by?

"The reality in Training Base 1 creates problems that cannot be controlled or anticipated in advance. I'll give you an example: the commander sent a male and a female cadet on a trip. They were supposed to return in a few hours. But there were all kinds of delays, and in the end they were not authorized to return that night because it was late. In the end they slept in the Soldier's House together. This is an example of how things can get complicated without anyone having bad intentions.

"Even if on paper there are rules and one can demand they be followed, in everyday operations there are countless incidents that are against orders, because of the mixing between men and women. Whoever wants to save himself always needs to demand his requirements in real time, and even then it depends on the commanders, who are required to display a high level of sensitivity at any given time."

Another officer describes how in his time the definition of boys' barracks changed: "The Battalion Commander determined that the part of dormitory to be prohibited to girls, includes only the bedrooms themselves, rather than the whole floor. Even in the hallway adjacent to the showers, girls were allowed to move about freely. Girls were giving boys massages in the boys' dormitory."

The IDF spokesman confused

Following the allegations, Besheva turned to the army spokesman with the following questions: Why does Gefen Battalion not allow religious cadets to serve in separate gender companies? What is your response to reports of past and present cadets in Gefen Battalion that girls freely enter boys' rooms, and why is there no attempt to prevent this? Why not allow cadets to conduct hand-to-hand combat training or sports with men only? And what is the IDF response to the overall feeling of cadets at Training Base 1, that the system treats their halakhic needs in the field of gender separation as a nuisance?

The IDF Spokesperson chose to relate only to the first question: "In the IDF, soldiers from every part of society serve, and efforts are being made to adapt the service to the various populations. Every cadet is given the opportunity to pass the course within the framework of a separate gender environment at the squad level."

This statement of the IDF Spokesperson, that the gender separate environment is only available to the soldier at the lower squad level, is contrary to the standing orders that a soldier is allowed to maintain a gender-separate framework also at company level. That is clearly stated in the joint service regulations (Article 13): "In every mixed combat unit a training course and service will be planned in such a way as to allow a soldier who so does request, the possibility to serve in a gender-separate framework, on the company level. Deviation from this directive requires the approval of the head of the Personnel Directorate, if he receives a recommendation from the branch commander first."

In addition, it should be noted that contrary to the IDF spokesman's claims, cadets who requested to serve in gender-separate teams were met with arbitrary refusal.

After we pointed out to the IDF Spokesman that their reply violated standing orders, they sent the following response: "The composition of teams and squads at Training Base 1 is determined in accordance with the Standing Orders, approved by the head of the Personnel Directorate and examined individually in each cycle."

According to this, did the commander of land forces recommend that the Personnel Directorate deviate from standing orders? Did the head of the Personnel Directorate approve the prevention of gender-separate units from the outset? Besheva has obtained evidence that contradicts the IDF spokesman's response on this matter.

The Tzav 1 organization tells Besheva: "For months we have been warning about the IDF's conduct in relation to the religious community. Our warnings are like a voice in the wilderness. In many cases, elements in the political or Hesder yeshiva systems chose to attack us rather than help us. Standing orders may be good for an office environment. In the field such orders collapse and lose all meaning. There is no way to enforce the orders in fighting battalions and Gefen battalion at Training Base 1 proves it."

"The outgoing IDF spokesman Motti Almoz said there would be no problem integrating women into tank units, and attacked the rabbis who opposed it. Instead of dealing with the problems, the IDF spokesman is busy denying them and creating additional problems ... We have a bad feeling that there is no one to talk to. It is inconceivable that the best of our soldiers will have to compromise on the values ​​of the Torah to be officers in the army of the Jewish people."

A month ago, Chief-of-staff Gadi Eizenkot met with several rabbis from different shades of the national-religious spectrum, from Rabbi Eli Sadan to Rabbis Yuval Sherlo, Ohad Taharlev, and Rabbanit Michal Nagan from the liberal stream. The rabbis demanded a change in the standing orders, which they said harms the ability of religious soldiers to serve in combat. At this meeting and a further discussion with Rabbi Haim Druckman, the Chief of Staff announced that he plans to form a team to re-examine the standing orders. A month has passed and the team has not yet been established. Events at Training Base 1 call into question the army's willingness to improve attitudes towards religious soldiers.