Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman demanded on Wednesday that the controversial national-religious Rabbi Yigal Levenstein resign as head of the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli and threatened to stop funding the institution if he does not.
Bnei David responded, saying: “Out of a deep belief in our path, we will not cooperate with any injury to the freedom of expression and opinions of the rabbis, students and graduates of Bnei David.”
Last week, comments made by Levenstein came to light in which he belittled and disparaged female IDF soldiers and strongly denounced the enlistment of religious women to the IDF.
Levenstein said religious women become “non-Jews” by the end of their IDF service in terms of their values and priorities; implied that no one would marry female soldiers; and said the idea of a female company commander “is fit for the madhouse.”
In a previous speech made last year, Levenstein attacked LGBT people, describing them as “perverts,” and denounced pluralist aspects of the IDF’s educational programs.
In Liberman’s letter on Wednesday, the defense minister said that “as someone who respects rabbis,” he was deeply disappointed by Levenstein’s “crass and disparaging” phrasing of his message, and noted that he had made similar comments in the past about other groups.
“In my humble opinion, on the one hand, this testifies to a deliberate desire to antagonize and provoke and, on the other hand, to a loss of judgment. I’m not sure which is worse,” Liberman wrote to Levenstein.
“On a personal note, I have to tell you that your words offended me, not just as a defense minister who values and appreciates the women who serve in the army and those who sacrificed their lives in the wars of Israel, but also as a proud father whose religious daughter served in the IDF, which did not harm her religious faith or her Judaism or femininity.”
The defense minister said the rabbi’s comments were “in total contravention of the values of the IDF and the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and noted that women have always served in the IDF.
Liberman described the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli as a “magnificent institution” and said the rabbi’s comments and the values he represents “cannot be a basis for the education of yeshiva students and this academy.”
He also noted that Levenstein has stood by his comments, though apologizing for the manner in which he phrased them. Therefore, he said, “I demand that you resign from your position in the academy and in the hesder yeshiva.”
“If you do not do so, I will be forced to use my authority to halt funding and the recognition by the Defense Ministry of the Eli yeshiva as a hesder yeshiva, and I will work in every way to cancel the recognition of Eli as a pre-military academy,” concluded Liberman.
Bnei David is a collection of institutions, including a hesder yeshiva. The hesder program combines three-and-ahalf years of religious study in yeshiva with 17 months of IDF service for religious soldiers. Pre-military academies receive government funding and can operate only in cooperation with the Education and Defense ministries.
Regulations regarding pre-military academies state that they “cannot conduct activities that contravene the values of the State of Israel and the IDF.”
An advisory committee in the Defense Ministry composed of various representatives of the two ministries and the IDF is responsible for oversight and inspection of the academies.
The committee can, if it so wishes, advise the director-general of the Defense Ministry to recommend that the Education Ministry revoke recognition and funding of such an academy.
To date, revocation of recognition of an academy has never occurred, although some academies have been refused permanent recognition after their initial two-to-three-year period of operation expired.
It seems likely that Liberman threatened to revoke Bnei David’s hesder recognition in light of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s opposition to any suspension of the Bnei David pre-military academy’s state recognition as a result of Levenstein’s comments.
Following publication of Liberman’s letter, Bennett insisted that “the Eli academy will not close,” and criticized Liberman’s threat, saying the defense minister was acting out of “political considerations” and simply wanted to demean the religious-Zionist sector.
“This is just Yvette’s [Liberman’s] typical political blabber, like blowing up the Aswan Dam, support for the annexation of Judea and Samaria, opposition to it, annulling citizenship for Arab Israelis, the death penalty for terrorists and assassinating [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh 48 hours after becoming defense minister,” quipped Bennett in a political attack on former threats and alleged policy positions of Liberman in the past.
Bennett did, however, criticize Levenstein’s comments as “wretched and disparaging,” saying he valued female soldiers and their contribution to the IDF and that “what needs to be fixed will be fixed.” He did not state exactly how Levenstein’s controversial speeches should be addressed.