The argument between Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett continued to simmer on Thursday, as Liberman doubled down on his insistence that Rabbi Yigal Levinstein step down as head of the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli.
In a speech last week, Levinstein belittled and disparaged female soldiers and strongly denounced enlistment of religious women in the IDF, leading Liberman to demand on Wednesday that the rabbi resign from serving as head of the school.
The defense minister said if Levinstein does not comply, he will revoke IDF recognition of the Bnei David hesder yeshiva and work to defund the pre-military academy. (A hesder yeshiva combines religious studies with military service.)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett strongly denounced Liberman’s threats, to which Liberman responded on Thursday, accusing Bennett on his Facebook page of making political capital out of the crisis.
“As someone who knows the importance of the pre-military academy and hesder yeshiva in Eli arrangement, I have no doubt that it is important that they continue to function and prepare the next generation of fighters in the IDF. The last thing I want to do is to hurt them,” he wrote.
However, such an arrangement was “incompatible with Levinstein’s continuing to head the academy,” he added. “What is happening right now is that the Eli yeshiva and academy are being sacrificed on the altar of Bayit Yehudi’s primary, and all because a person [Levinstein] who has already apologized twice after insulting entire communities has now again crassly and disparagingly hurt the women soldiers of the IDF and the women of Israel.”
Levinstein, in an address to students last week, said religious women become “non- Jews” by the end of their IDF service in their values and priorities; implied that no one would marry a female soldier; and said the idea of a female company commander “is fit for the madhouse.”
In a speech made last year, he attacked LGBT people, describing them as “perverts,” and denounced pluralist aspects of IDF educational programs.
Rabbi Eli Sadan, who serves alongside Levinstein as co-dean of the academy, said on Thursday that Bnei David institutions rejected the ultimatum and said Levinstein would not be fired, according to a Channel 2 report.
Against this background, an array of leading liberal Orthodox rabbis issued a position paper on Thursday banning religious men from serving in mixed-gender combat battalions, testifying to the strength of feeling within the national- religious sector against mixed-gender units in the army.
Tensions between the IDF and the sector have grown over the last year, and an IDF directive six months ago requiring men to serve in a mixed-gender battalion, if so ordered, has further escalated these strains.
National-religious rabbis oppose situations in which religious men would be required to share living or sleeping quarters with women due to religious laws that prohibit men from such proximity with women other than their wife and family.
There are currently four mixed-gender battalions, Caracal, Lions of the Jordan, Bardelas and another yet to be named.
Although mainstream and more conservative national-religious rabbis have been highly critical of the directive, more liberally inclined rabbis have been quiet on the issue.
But on Thursday, the Beit Hillel rabbinical association, Har Etzion Yeshiva dean Rabbi Yaakov Medan, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and Tzohar rabbinical association chairman Rabbi David Stav – all liberal or moderate national- religious leaders and institutions – issued a joint statement and position paper against the IDF directive.
In the paper, the rabbis forbade military service for religious men where they are required to share living quarters and living space with women and where physical activities occur in a mixed-gender setting.
They called on IDF commanders to show “sensitivity toward the religious community and to allow it to “preserve its values and faith within the IDF, so as not to close of units in ‘ghettos’ within the army.”
The rabbis emphasized, however, that they were not addressing the wider issue of integrating women into combat roles, but simply the mixing of male and female soldiers in different military frameworks.
They mentioned specifically the Caracal and Lions of the Jordan battalions, saying that solutions for “the required [level] of separation” had not yet been found and that therefore “as of now, it is forbidden to serve in them.”
Said Medan “We love the IDF, very much appreciate it and want to participate in all its units, but recently the IDF has been trying to educate us anew, and to force upon us a culture to which we are not accustomed, a culture that tramples on our values and faith, and we cannot accept that.”
The rabbis also expressed criticism for Levinstein and his vitriolic comments against women serving in the army.
“All the tribes of Israeli society meet together in the IDF and unite for the sake of the security of the State of Israel. We oppose any attempt to create divisions and schisms around the issue of the IDF, and oppose any injury to the honor of male or female soldiers,” they wrote in implicit criticism of Levinstein.Anna Ahronheim contributed to this story.