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Infantry: Two Battalions That Should Never Meet
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December 30, 2012: While the Israeli Army depends on conscription for most of its troops, there are some all-volunteer units. Some are elite infantry units, which are very difficult to get into. But two of these all volunteer battalions are unique. The oldest one (formed in 1999), the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, is composed of Haredi (ultra-orthodox and extremely conservative and traditional) men. Most Haredi men do not serve in the military and some Haredi sects believe that Israel should not even exist.

The largely secular government thought encouraging Haredi men to do military service (which, as religious students, they have long been exempt from) would help make Haredi more accepting of non-religious Jews. Intolerance of secular Jews has been a growing problem with Haredi men. Despite these recruiting efforts, only a relatively small number of ultra-orthodox men served until the last decade. And, as with most religions, Judaism exempts soldiers from many of the lifestyle rules. For example, until the last few years, it was common for ultra-orthodox recruits to be trained by female instructors (who are very common in Israel, where women are subject to conscription). But in the last two decades ultra-orthodox rabbis (clerics) have increasingly insisted that the military change to accommodate ultra-orthodox recruits and not the other way around. For example, ultra-orthodox are not supposed to have any contact with a women they are not closely related to.

In the last decade ultra-orthodox rabbis got ultra-orthodox politicians to force the government to change military regulations so that an ultra-orthodox soldier could request a male instructor if his group was being taught by a woman. There were many rules like this that were quietly slipped into the military regulations. Ultra-orthodox troops increasingly called for these rules to be enforced. The other 99 percent of the troops began suffering a morale hit as they were increasingly harassed by assertive ultra-orthodox troops. When commanders complained to their elected bosses they were told to favor the ultra-orthodox troops whenever possible. Most troops are aware of this by now and are not happy. Thus the importance of the all-Haredi infantry battalion that eliminates the problems encountered when you combine religious customs, secular troops, and a few troops who have politically powerful clergy supervising their military life. The Netzah Yehuda Battalion began small (with only 30 troops when formed) but has grown to over a thousand troops and is very popular with Haredi troops. Since the government is under a lot of pressure to conscript Haredi (who are 14 percent of the population) more all-Haredi battalions will be needed.

Meanwhile, Israel has had problems maintaining the strength of its only female infantry battalion and female combat jobs in general. Currently 1.6 percent of Israeli combat jobs are filled by women. The army wants to make that two percent and to that end is staffing the new Iron Dome anti-missile units with women. Israeli law forbids sending women into combat but does allow for giving them jobs that might lead to combat situations.

Over the last few years fewer women have volunteered for combat jobs. So the military is experimenting with new screening and training methods, to address common complaints among women inclined to volunteer for these jobs. So far these efforts have led to a 15 percent increase in volunteers but more are needed. Part of the problem is that a growing proportion of potential recruits are young men and women from ultra-orthodox Jewish families. The men are exempt from conscription and the women usually marry early. This exemption is under heavy political attack by the majority of Israelis but so far the exemption stands.

Israel has, over the last few decades, expanded the number of combat jobs women can volunteer for. Israel conscripts men (for three years) and women (for two years). But women have more exemptions (especially marriage). Women who volunteer for combat duty are hard core because not only will they have to undergo some strenuous training but will have to serve three years on active duty, plus several years as reservists. This is necessary to justify the longer training required.

Like many other countries, Israeli military police units contain men and women. Same with dog handlers, border guards, artillery units, and some search and rescue units. Women have long served as flight instructors, as well as trainers for tank crews.

There is also a largely female infantry unit, the Caracal Battalion. Part of the 512th Brigade in Southern Command, the battalion was formed in 2000, to provide a place for women who wanted to be in the infantry. It's a light (not mechanized) infantry unit that mainly serves along the Jordanian or Egyptian borders. The battalion took part in safeguarding Israeli civilians and troops during the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. Initially, about half the troops in Caracal were female, as were most of the officers, NCOs, and, usually, the commander. Now about 70 percent of the Caracal members are women, although it was 90 percent three years ago. While many troops see Caracal as a publicity stunt and a sop to the feminists, the unit has performed well and has a reputation as a no-nonsense and reliable outfit.

During their independence war in 1948, Israel had female infantry units but these were withdrawn. Not because the women couldn't fight but because Arab units facing them became more fanatical, and less likely to surrender, when they realized they were fighting women. There has long been pressure from conservative Jewish clergy in Israel who want women to be barred from combat jobs, while Arab radicals are urging more women to get involved in terrorism operations, including suicide bombings.

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