Ten years ago, fewer than 15 percent of eligible women from the observant Orthodox community joined the Israeli military each year. Most such young women--in Israeli terms, Zionist-Orthodox, or "religious" but not haredi--took advantage of the exemption from military service that the government grants all religious youths. Many joined the civil national service and served as teachers or nurses or else moved on to academic studies, marriage or work.
One may well object to the religious exemption, and many do, but what's interesting is that more and more of the young women eligible for exemption are choosing the draft instead. They follow in the footsteps of non-haredi Orthodox men, of whom the vast majority serve in the military. From barely 1,000 female religious soldiers in 2011, the number rose to 1,500 in 2012, 1,800 in 2014 and 2,500 in 2016. Today, the total is approaching 3,000--from a total number of about 8,000 young Zionist-Orthodox females eligible each year.
To understand this development, one must follow three different stories: of the soldiers themselves, of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and of the rabbis who are the main opposition to this growing trend. The female soldiers come from Zionist-Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox, families (the ultra-Orthodox still overwhelmingly use the exemption)--but by joining the IDF they still defy the ideology of most of the educational institutions from which they come, as well as that of most of the Zionist-Orthodox rabbis.
For the IDF, the situation is simple: It needs high-quality soldiers, and these women provide a pool of well-educated, idealistic, dedicated, disciplined young people. Once the IDF realized the potential of this group, it quickly took steps to make joining the IDF a less frightening choice for them. It monitors their environment more closely so they can serve without compromising their religious practices, providing times for prayer and rooms to which no male soldier or officer has access. To do this, the IDF consults with religious bodies and leaders supportive of the new trend. In a few years, the military expects to draft as many as half of all eligible religious females from Zionist-Orthodox backgrounds, which would put the overall number in the military at around 8,000 at any one time.
What is the rabbis' role in all this? The rabbis go nuts. Some of them, anyway. One rabbi argued that these women will "destroy the military." A couple dozen rabbis signed a petition...