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The Fairness of Extending Military Service for Women

Length of service, which is indicative of the extent of our moral and civic duties as individuals, should not be determined by gender. That would be unfair.
©Ruslan Landa/
©Ruslan Landa/
Shlomit Harrosh is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought at Shalom Hartman Institute. Shlomit holds a B.A. in philosophy and psychology and an M.A. in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shlomit completed her doctoral thesis at Oxford University on the concept of evildoing from a moral perspective and tutors online philosophy courses for the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. Her research interests include ethics, political philosophy,

Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

The Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill proposes personnel restructuring in the IDF which will see compulsory service for men shortened from three years to 32 months, while compulsory service for women will be lengthened from two years to 28 months, thereby reducing the gap in the length of service between the genders to just four months.

The IDF cites two reasons for extending women’s military service. First, reducing the length of men’s service would result in the early release of thousands of male soldiers, creating a significant personnel shortage, particularly in combat and technical divisions. Extending women’s service is an essential component in the IDF’s overall plan to fill the ranks. Second, the IDF maintains that lengthening women’s service will reduce differences between men and women. According to a senior officer in the Personnel Directorate, “extending women’s service is aimed first and foremost at increasing equality within the military.”

Opponents to extending women’s military service argue that as long as universal conscription is not enforced across all sectors of Israeli society, it would be unfair to require those women who do shoulder the burden to serve for an additional four months. Extending women’s terms of service exploits their sense of civic duty in a reality in which only one in two women actually enlists.

According to Brig. Gen. Orna Barbivay, Head of the Personnel Directorate, 43 percent of Jewish women in Israel do not serve in the military, 35.9 percent of whom are exempt on religious grounds. Among the latter, the IDF believes that several thousand young women merely pretend to be religious to avoid military service. Because the Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill does not address the issue of universal conscription nor the automatic exemptions given to religious and married women, focusing instead on the integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF while shortening the duration of service for men, adding another four months to the service of female soldiers will only deepen the inequality between them and those individuals and sectors in Israeli society that shirk their military duty.

Opponents of the proposed extension of women’s service further argue that the inequality of lengthening military service for women by four months will only act as a deterrence to enlisting, increasing the number of women who will falsely seek exemption from service. This, in turn, will undermine the IDF’s plan to alleviate the expected shortage in male soldiers with female recruits.
Given that military service is compulsory for women, let us ignore the obvious solution to this problem, which is to avoid knee-jerk exemptions to women on religious grounds and carefully screen all candidates. Let us also grant for a moment the alleged unfairness of extending women’s military service. Nevertheless, it remains an empirical question whether this perceived unfairness would result in fewer women actually enlisting and serving in the IDF.

Lengthening women’s service would remove the principal barrier to assigning women to some of the most demanding and important jobs in the military. These jobs require extensive training which lasts many months. At present, a woman’s relatively short length of service either precludes her from undergoing the required training, or it makes it ineffective for the IDF to train her for a job that she will only perform for a short time before being released from regular service. Given the option to try out for highly significant military service in exchange for an additional four months of service, it does not seem obvious that women would rather avoid the draft because of perceived inequality with those who do not serve. This is particularly true when we remember that motivation largely depends on presentation and that, when necessary, the IDF knows how to encourage future recruits to enlist to specific roles. Some women may be put off by the longer service, especially if they are told that they are “suckers” for serving when so many women don’t. Other women may be indifferent to it (after all, we are talking only four more months). The point is that we cannot presume to know in advance the effects of lengthening women’s service on their motivation to enlist without considering the roles of society and the IDF in contextualizing the new terms of service.

This brings us back to the argument that it is unfair to extend women’s military service before universal conscription is enforced, or at the very least, before the ease with which some women can avoid military service be corrected. I believe this argument is deeply flawed, for it confuses two distinct issues: the unfairness of freeloading, versus the unfairness of discrimination.

Israel’s geopolitical situation makes a strong IDF an existential necessity. Because the strength of the IDF relies on the quality of its soldiers, it must have first pick of all suitable candidates before market forces, academia and personal interests can have their say. This is one reason why military service in Israel is mandatory. As beneficiaries of the common good of security, we each have a civic and moral duty to help protect the security of the State of Israel, its citizens and residents, by enlisting when we are called upon to do so. It is therefore deeply unfair that certain sectors and individuals in Israeli society are legally permitted to make an exception for themselves and freeload on the sacrifice of others. The Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill focuses on this form of inequality in conscription as it pertains to ultra-Orthodox men.

But there is another form of inequality which is independent of the question to whom mandatory conscription applies. It is the inequality of duties and opportunities between male and female soldiers in the IDF.

Suppose we somehow manage to enforce compulsory service on all sectors of Israeli society irrespective of gender. In this new reality, no one is exempt from military service on religious or cultural grounds. Yet there would remain the question of gender equality in the IDF in terms of the length of service and the jobs open to men and women. Conversely, suppose the IDF implements a comprehensive gender-neutral screening and assigning policy and establishes either a uniform length of service for all soldiers or a differential length of service depending solely on the job. Nevertheless, this would not address the inequality of having certain individuals and sectors in society shirk their military service.

It follows that whether or not it is fair to extend women’s military service is a question that should be addressed independently of the issue of enforcing universal conscription. In the remainder of this piece I shall argue that extending women’s service is fair not only in terms of fostering gender equality in the IDF, but also and more importantly in terms of how women are valued as soldiers, citizens and human beings.

Extending women’s service is a crucial step toward removing gender discrimination in the military, for it enables more women to serve in significant roles. This, in turn, encourages adopting gender-neutral screening and assignment criteria which focus on the skills, capabilities and motivation of the individual soldier. A case in point is the IDF’s plan to open new light-infantry, mixed-gender battalions and to increase the number of female combat soldiers to 1,200. Candidates, both men and women, will undergo a unified process of initial screening and assignment. The proportion of women in compulsory service will also change with the planned personnel restructuring, increasing from just 34 percent in 2012 to 40 percent. This will further contribute to changing the male-dominated atmosphere in the IDF and making women’s contribution more visible.

While it is true that not every woman who enlists for an extended service is guaranteed a highly significant role, the same is currently true of the men. Extending women’s service offers them an equal opportunity to compete alongside the men for the 92 percent of the roles open to women in the IDF. The better women perform in these roles, particularly combat ones, the more likely it is that the IDF will move toward opening all roles to women (without lowering professional criteria), so that those women who can serve on submarines, in tanks, or in special infantry units, will do so. Extending women’s service will also facilitate women’s entry to the IDF’s senior decision-making ranks by giving more women combat experience.

Ultimately, though, the fundamental reason why women’s service should be extended is that it signifies society’s recognition of the equal worth of women. The ease with which women are let off the hook when it comes to military service is deeply worrying. It conveys the message that society does not expect much of women. To the extent that we are defined by our duties and responsibilities, the fact that women are expected to serve less than men, and until quite recently were not expected to fulfill combat positions, is a sign that their military contribution is not valued as highly as that of the men, and that as citizens, less is expected of them. This attitude assumes that the military is primarily a man’s world and that women are there only as helpmates and by the good graces of men. This attitude underlies the objection that since increasing the number of female combatants will not completely solve the male personnel shortage in combat battalions, there is no reason to extend women’s service (which is a condition of increasing female presence in combat units). The objection implicitly denies the idea that men and women have an equal duty to do their best to contribute to the security of Israel during their mandatory military service. Given the central role that the IDF plays in Israeli society, this assumption is nothing short of a slap in the face, delegating women to the role of second-class citizens in certain respects.

Extending women’s service is fair, because just as men and women have an equal right to equality of opportunities in the military, they also have an equal duty as equal beneficiaries of the good of security to serve their country. Length of service, which is indicative of the extent of our moral and civic duties as individuals, should not be determined by gender. That would be unfair.

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