Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and an array of politicians and public officials have condemned comments by hard-line national-religious leader Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who denounced female military service last week and said religious women lose their religious values in the army, are “crazy” and become “non-Jews.”
In his openings statement to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu referred to Levenstein’s remarks, noting that women have always taken part in fighting for the people of Israel, from “the Hebrew female combatants [the biblical figures] Yael and Debora to [WWII resistance fighter] Hanna Senesh, the Palmah and Irgun combatants, and in our days female combatants in the IDF, the Border Police, all of whom are true heroes.”
“We have seen them here, in the streets of Jerusalem,” he said. “They are heroes taking an active and sometimes painful part in protecting the security of the State of Israel and the nation, and we are proud of this and cherish this.”
Liberman said the rabbi’s connection to the army would be reconsidered following his comments, while numerous MKs as well as moderate national-religious rabbis and leaders also denounced the remarks.
In an interview with Channel 2 on Wednesday night, Levenstein said he apologized for the manner in which he made the comments and the way he expressed himself, but he would not retract his opposition “to the serious cultural changes in the IDF and its serious, feminist agenda.”
Levenstein, the head of the pre-military academy in Eli, was censured last year when he gave a speech vilifying homosexuals and labeling them “perverts.”
Women serving in the IDF (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Coincidentally, it was announced on Wednesday that the State Attorney’s Office would not investigate Levenstein for incitement, as requested by the Israel Be Free secularist organization, since the rabbi had not called for violence against LGBTs.
Speaking at the Otzem pre-military academy last week, Levenstein strongly criticized many aspects of female service in the IDF.
“What if there will be a female commander of a company,” he said in a video first broadcast by Channel 2. “It’s an insane question; it’s fit for the madhouse. They have made our daughters crazy; they’re drafting them into the army.”
“They enter as Jews , [but] they’re not Jews by the end,” Levenstein said. “Not in the genetic sense, [but] their entire value system has become confused, their priorities – the home, a career. They’re driving all of them [religious women] crazy. We cannot agree to this.”
In another part of his speech, he said the IDF magazine Bamahane has pictures only of women and implied that no one would marry female soldiers.
“For 10 years I’ve been opening Bamahane,” Levenstein said, “and I see only pictures of girls, all in camouflage paint.... Someone said to me, ‘Don’t worry, they are just practicing for their weddings, to get made up.’ I don’t know who would marry her.”
Liberman issued a strongly critical statement of Levenstein, saying his comments harmed the status of women and the IDF.
“Since the establishment of the state, women have served in the IDF and contributed greatly to the security of Israel,” he said.
“Levenstein’s tirade harms women in Israel and the army, the heritage of the IDF and the basic values of the State of Israel.”
Liberman said he would reevaluate Levenstein’s status and his “suitability for preparing youths for IDF service,” a hint at disqualifying him from heading the Eli pre-military academy.
Pre-military academies receive government funding and can operate only in cooperation with the Education and Defense ministries.
Senior rabbis from the conservative wing of the national-religious community have for several years now been trying to stop the increasing numbers of religious women joining the IDF.
They fear that religious women will be negatively influenced by the military environment, and insist that women from the community serve in the national service program instead.
Despite their efforts, IDF figures show that 2,159 women from the national-religious sector joined the IDF in 2015, approximately 25% of the roughly 7,000 religious-Zionist women who graduate from 12th grade every year.
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria said Levenstein was deepening divisions within the national-religious community instead of reconciling himself with reality.
“The injury done by his words is not only against girls who want to enlist, but also to the strength of the IDF,” she said. “This is a rearguard action by hardline elements trying to prevent religious women from enlisting. The reality is winning, though: Religious women are enlisting in their droves despite the crass words of Rabbi Levenstein and his partners.”
Separately, Rabbi Dov Lior, one of the most senior hard-line national-religious leaders, published a ruling he issued in December banning religious men from serving in mixed-gender IDF units.