Comments made last week by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, founder and head of the Bnei David pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli, describing homosexuals as “perverts” and claiming that a socially liberal agenda is being advanced in the IDF, have caused an uproar in the national-religious community in the last few days.
Levenstein was speaking at a conference of some 700 rabbis and educators from the national- religious sector last week to deal with what organizers described as Reform influence in Israeli society.
During his speech, the rabbi said that he had presented several lectures at the Bahad 1 officers training school on issues of tolerance and respect towards the LGBT community.
“There are lectures by perverts at Bahad 1. We managed to have them stopped,” said Levenstein, adding that he was aware of a program undertaken in an IAF pilots course in which trainees were taken to a gay club in Tel Aviv to paint the walls, which the rabbi condemned.
“There were also films on the issue where they present [in Bahad 1] the lifestyle of perverts, and soldiers who refused to watch were court-martialed,” he claimed.
Levenstein also denounced the Reform Movement as “not a stream within Judaism but rather a Christian denomination,” and alleged the IDF Chief Education Officer is trying to introduce anti-Jewish values.
In a statement to the press Monday, the Defense Ministry denounced the rabbi’s comments and said it was demanding clarifications from Levenstein’s pre-military academy.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also issued a strongly worded criticism of Levenstein, although he did not mention him by name.
“Jewish law is not meant to be a divisive tool nor is it meant to be a tool for marking out people, identities or sectors,” said Bennett. “One cannot denigrate an entire community and take shelter behind Jewish law.
“The things that have been said are not acceptable to me and are not the path of religious-Zionism. Reality is more complicated than what is religiously permitted and prohibited,” Bennett continued. “Correct, there are explicit prohibitions in the Torah, but we do not exclude from the [national-religious] camp every person who transgresses a Torah prohibition.
This is not our way.”
Bennett was the first of several senior political figures to criticize Levenstein.
Zionist Union leader and head of the opposition MK Isaac Herzog said that Israel is witnessing “an intifada of dark, internal hatred,” which he said is coming from all sides and is sowing the seeds of civil war.
“IDF rabbis against women, Mizrahim against Ashkenazim, Ashkenazim against Mizrahim. Pre-military academy rabbis against the gay community, Arabs and Jews everything besides,” said Herzog in the Zionist Union Knesset faction meeting.
Culture Minister Miri Regev described Levenstein’s comments as “harmful” and “unfitting for a public figure and educator,” and added that “recognition of the value and importance of the traditional family unit does not justify remarks against those who chose to live differently.”
Levenstein did receive backing from several senior figures in the national- religious community, including the controversial chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, as well as the more mainstream chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel.
However, several liberal national-religious groups and rabbis, including the Beit Hillel rabbinical association and leaders of the Tzohar rabbinical association, expressed outrage at Levenstein’s comments.
Rabbi Benny Lau, head of the Ramban Synagogue in southern Jerusalem, said he was appalled at Levenstein’s comments and that he knew of an incident in which the rabbi had spoken out against homosexuals in a high-school which led a pupil to attempt suicide.
“You called them ‘perverts’. By throwing this word around, it is as if you have cursed someone as a leper.
You used words that are disgusting,” said Lau in a 17-minute video he posted on Facebook on Sunday.
Lau said he was aware of an incident two years ago when Levenstein spoke at the Himmelfarb school in Jerusalem.
“You stood there and ridiculed homosexuals with a bad joke. You compared them to animals until the school principal Rabbi Yirmi Stevitski stood up and said, ‘Rabbi Yigal, you are our guest, and we don’t speak like that here.’ He stopped you.”
Lau said that last year a pupil who had been present at Levenstein’s address had spoken subsequently with Stevitski and told him that he had tried to commit suicide in the wake of the speech but that his friends had stopped him.
“Who gave you the right to insult them [homosexuals]? In the name of what Torah are you doing this?” Lau asked, calling on Levenstein to retract his comments and apologize for them.