Reality Check: Women soldiers are a distraction

The attention devoted to Rabbi Levinstein’s remarks removed the spotlight from a more serious issue concerning religion and state.

SOLDIERS OF the IDF Search and Rescue brigade rest during a training session in the Ben Shemen forest, near the city of Modi’in last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SOLDIERS OF the IDF Search and Rescue brigade rest during a training session in the Ben Shemen forest, near the city of Modi’in last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a terminally ill cancer patient worrying about a minor headache, the attention devoted to serial provocateur Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s remarks about Orthodox women serving in the Israel Defense Force only served to distract from a more serious issue concerning matters of religion and state last week, one which has more fatal implications for the country in the years to come.
True, the Education Ministry should have already halted its funding for the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli, the institution Levinstein heads, following his foul-mouthed criticism last year of the IDF for its tolerance of gays (“perverts” in the rabbi’s despicable terminology).
The army rightly banned him from appearing before soldiers immediately after those remarks. Now, following his latest broadside concerning Orthodox women – “They draft them into the army. They go in Jewish but they aren’t Jewish when they come out... Their whole value system becomes confused, their priorities: home, career” – the time has surely come for the ministry to pull the plug on this “educator” and cease funding the academy until he steps down from it.
Fortunately, the IDF is marching way ahead of Levinstein in terms of its treatment of women and gays, no matter how much he rants and raves. Women pilots no longer make the news, the mixed-sex Caracal Battalion responsible for patrolling the Israeli-Egyptian border is 70% women, while the Israel Air Force recently published a photograph of Captain Adir Gabbai and his husband, Dean, as part of a set of pictures promoting Family Day in Israel.
The army further announced last week, in a delicious irony of timing, that it was conducting tests to determine the feasibility of women-only tank crews inside the Armored Corps.
On the part of women recruits themselves, the demand is increasing to join combat units. According to IDF figures, after nearly a decade in which the number of female combat soldiers stuck at around 500, it has now quadrupled to over 2,000. And more observant women are joining their ranks, with the number of religious women declining their automatic exemption from military service doubling in the recent past, from 935 in 2010 to 2,159 in 2015.
So while the dangers posed by Levinstein to societal progress is in inverse proportion to the media attention his speeches receive, a much more serious threat to the country’s well-being passed almost unnoticed last week. As part of the coalition agreement commitments with the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, the government approved a budget increase of more than NIS 50 million for yeshivot, bringing the yeshiva budget to an all-time record of NIS 1.224 billion.
With every increase in this budget, more and more haredi men are encouraged to shirk their responsibilities. Rather than enter the workforce to support their families independently, these subsidies enable yeshiva students to rely instead on the public purse to finance their sheltered and non-productive lifestyles. Education Ministry figures, as reported by one Hebrew newspaper last week, show that the number of married, full-time yeshiva students grew 15% over 2015-2016, double the growth rate of the haredi population for this period.
This increase equates to greater poverty in the future. Israel already has one of the highest rates of poverty among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members, with about 21% of Israelis are living under the poverty line according to its 2016 report, more than in countries such as Mexico, Turkey and Chile.
This is no God-given situation, but rather the work of cynical haredi leaders, seeking to keep their followers down and closeted from the wider society, aided and abetted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For Netanyahu, the loyalty of his haredi coalition partners counts more than the needs of the country, and he is prepared to pay generously for their support, regardless of the cost, both in financial terms and in the general development of Israeli society.
As the OECD report pointed out, aside from weak productivity, the Israeli economy suffers from another major challenge: the low employment rate for haredi men [and Arab-Israeli women], compounded by the fact that those haredi men in work are likely to hold low-paid jobs because of their inadequate skill set.
Looking to the future and the growing share of haredim in the Israeli population as a whole, this trend is only get worse unless the government takes action to better integrate haredi men into the workforce. This would involve, as a start, requiring haredi schools to teach mathematics, science and foreign languages, but such knowledge is anathema to the haredi system.
Both Levinstein and the haredi leaders are seeking to turn the clock back and stop the march of progress. But while mainstream Israel rises up in anger against Levinstein, the haredi leadership receives the backing of the government to condemn another generation of its public to live in poverty, to the detriment of both the haredi sector and the wider society. And nobody seems to care.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.