Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday for staying silent amid calls to shutter a prestigious pre-army academy whose controversial senior rabbi disparaged female soldiers.
During the weekly cabinet meeting, Bennett reportedly told Netanyahu, “At the moment of truth you abandoned religious Zionism and forgot to care for one of its most glorious institutions whose contribution is a contribution to the entire State of Israel,” referring to the academy, in the West Bank settlement of Eli.
Bennett’s excoriating of Netanyahu came after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday threatened to withdraw official recognition and funding from the pre-army academy and hesder yeshiva if its head Rabbi Yigal Levinstein did not resign.
Liberman on Thursday doubled down on his call for Levinstein to step down, a day after he and Bennett publicly sparred over the issue. with the defense minister accusing the Jewish Home head on Twitter of backing those who want to “turn Israel into Iran.”
Resuming the social media tiff on Thursday, Liberman took to Facebook to accuse Bennett of opposing the demand for Levinstein’s resignation for purely political reasons.
“I was saddened to see that instead of joining the call, Nafatali Bennett stood by the side of Rabbi Levinstein for narrow political considerations,” Liberman said.
“They are sacrificing the yeshiva and pre-army academy in Eli on the altar of the Jewish Home primaries,” he added.
Liberman said he knows the importance of these “proper” religious institutions and that the “last thing [he] wants to do is harm” them, but he can no longer tolerate Levinstein leading them.
“This is all for a man who has twice apologized after insulting entire populations and has now again hurt — flagrantly and contemptuously — female soldiers of the IDF and women of Israel,” he wrote
“Now is the time to come together and protect the united nation of Israel,” Liberman said.
Levinstein was condemned by politicians across the political spectrum last week after Channel 2 aired footage of a speech in which he said female soldiers were not Jews, and were driven “crazy” by military service to the point where they were unsuitable for marriage. Bennett also distanced himself from the rabbi’s comments.
After Levinstein’s comments surfaced, Netanyahu issued a rebuke in which he said, “We are proud of [female IDF service], and we will further it,” although he did not mention the rabbi by name in his remarks.
While a number of other right-wing politicians have denounced Levinstein’s comments, Liberman has been alone among coalition MKs in calling for the rabbi’s resignation.
On Thursday, Housing Minister Yoav Galant said that while Levinstein should apologize, “we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” and that punitive measures should not be taken against his yeshiva.
Following Bennett’s remarks, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely accused the education minister fanning the controversy for his own purposes.
“Bennett is trying to accumulate political capital at the expense of Likud,” she said in a statement, noting that “the prime minister admires the pre-army religious seminary in Eli, which he arrived at for a visit during the last elections.”
“It is unfortunate this debate on such an important subject as the nature of service in the IDF turned into a political and populist debate.”
In a pair of Twitter posts on Thursday, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri also called on Liberman not to take action against the pre-army religious academy in Eli, imploring the defense minister “not to lend your hand to the festival of hypocrisy that has been going on here the past week.”
Deri also defended Levinstein against the backlash over his remarks, saying “for years insulting expressions have been heard in the army and educational system against the ultra-Orthodox, immigrants from Ethiopia and from Russia, Israelis from Middle Eastern countries, Arabs and settlers and no one was shocked.”
Last week, Deri, whose ultra-Orthodox Shas party opposes both religious men and women serving in the army for reasons of Jewish law, called Levinstein “brave” over his remarks. “I praise him for saying the truth and for not being afraid to say the truth,” he said.
In the speech aired last week, Levinstein said that women who serve in the army leave their religion behind during their time in the military.
“They recruit them to the army, where they enter as Jews, but they’re not Jews by the time they leave,” he said. “Not in the genetic sense, but all of their values and priorities have been upset and we must not allow it.”
“What happens if there’s a female company commander? This is a question of madness, it belongs in an insane asylum,” Levinstein said. “This is an Orthodox girl. Put aside those who are secular. They’re making our girls crazy.”
In the wake of the uproar generated by his comments, Levinstein told Channel 2 last week that his delivery of the remarks in a mocking and sardonic manner was “inappropriate,” and expressed regret for “hurting people in the way I expressed myself.”
But asked if he would take back the comments, Levinstein said that the “feminist approach” of the IDF was “incompatible with Jewish law,” and that he would not “retract a single word of what I believe.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.