The Israel Defence Forces’ first female major general, Orna Barbivay, was in Toronto last week to talk about the demographic challenges facing Israel’s army and to appeal to the Jewish community to support its soldiers.
Barbivay, the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser for the Association for the Soldiers of Israel – Canada (ASI-Canada) on Sept. 9 at Beth Tzedec Congregation, spoke to The CJN about the importance of the relationship between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities, as well as the significance of organizations such as ASI-Canada.
Although there are many people in Israel and abroad who are eager to serve their country, the army struggles with a growing number of citizens – particularly women – who seek exemptions, said the 50-year-old Barbivay, who made history in June 2011 when she was appointed as head of the IDF’s manpower directorate and became Israel’s first female major general.
Many of those who seek exemption do so for religious reasons, she said, adding that she hopes more haredim will choose to enlist and that the IDF will be able to accommodate them without compromising the quality of the army.
Barbivay stressed the army’s connection to the Diaspora.
“The IDF doesn’t just represent Israelis, but Jews all over the world,” she said. “It’s important that everyone does their part, whether they’re Jews in Israel or living abroad, in whatever way they can.”
She noted the “bond that we have with Canada, that is one of unity and a shared ambition to see Israel thrive.”
During her time in Toronto, Barbivay addressed students at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Richmond Hill campus, as well as students at Bialik Hebrew Day School, and she met with ASI-Canada’s young leaders.
Barbivay, who conducted the interview in Hebrew, said organizations that support the IDF are important “because terrorism is becoming more of an issue. There have been many political changes in the Middle East and the IDF needs to be ready to deal with those challenges and changes.”
ASI-Canada is a non-profit organization that supports Israeli soldiers on active duty by offering social, educational, cultural and recreational programs.
Among the many programs is one designed for “Lone Soldiers,” or soldiers who don’t have family support in Israel – whether they’re orphaned or have chosen to leave their families behind and move to Israel to volunteer in the army.
According to Barbivay, about half of the 5,000 lone soldiers come from the Diaspora.
“We try to give them everything they need, because they are coming as volunteers. We want to do everything we can to make them comfortable.”
Barbivay, a mother of three, added, “I want their parents to know that if they send their kids to Israel to serve that they’ll be taken care of.”
Speaking about the issue of the decline of females enlisting in the army, she said 42 per cent of women don’t enlist. “In my eyes, that number is really bad. We talk about everyone needing to enlist, and we see that 42 per cent aren’t going.”
Of that 42 per cent, about 35 per cent claim religion as the reason, and some make that claim falsely, she said.
According to an agreement between the Jewish state and the first Israeli Chief Rabbinate, religious women are exempt from IDF service if they choose not to serve.
“For those who claim religion as a reason, if they are thought to be using it as an excuse, we want to be able to force them to go… We’re trying to make everyone go, even if it means changing the law,” Barbivay said.
She added that for each young woman who falsely claims to be religiously observant in order to escape service, there is another who actually is religiously observant but chooses to serve despite the difficulties.
“There are religious women who even get to the rank of officer, so when we see them succeeding, it makes me think that all religious women can,” she said.
In recent years, 90 per cent of military jobs, with the exception of core fighting units, have opened up to women.
“Women have all the opportunities to advance if they want to,” she said.
Demographics suggest that the difficulties with the haredi community will not be subsiding over the next 15 years.
Barbivay said that 30 per cent of Grade 1 students are currently enrolled in religious schools. This provides a window into what the army will face in the future.
“The Second Lebanon War showed us that we have to be at the top of our game,” she said. “As a country we should be encouraging people about the benefits of enlisting.”
Barbivay was also tough on the issue of draft dodging, which can result in a prison sentence.
A recent example involves Yana Gorelik, a 30-year-old Israeli-Canadian who was arrested earlier this month for being an IDF deserter.
When Gorelik, who moved with her parents from Israel to Canada at age 17 (she now lives in London), traveled back to the country to attend a cousin’s wedding, she was arrested and sent to Neve Tirza detention center in Ramle for four days.
The IDF claimed Gorelik didn’t complete her exemption from military service and her failure to do so was legally considered desertion.
Barbivay said she wasn’t familiar with Goerlik’s particular case, but she said Israel is a lawful state and it is determined to deal with draft-dodgers and those who fail to get the required approval for exemption from military service.