Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday said he would consider removing a rabbi from his position as head of a pre-army yeshiva, after the cleric was heard telling new army recruits that military service drives female soldiers “crazy” and strips them of their Jewishness.
In footage broadcast by Channel 2 news on Tuesday — a day before International Women’s Day — Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who runs a pre-army religious academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, told several hundred graduates of another academy, in the settlement of Bnei Atzmon, that IDF service has “driven our girls crazy.”
The comments drew wide condemnation from Israeli government officials and Liberman said Levinstein could be stripped of his position in the Eli academy.
“We will reconsider the position of Rabbi Levinstein and his fitness to prepare young people for service in the Israel Defense Forces,” Liberman said in a statement.
“Since the establishment of the state, women have served in the IDF and made an enormous contribution to the security of Israel,” Liberman added, speaking from Washington, where he is on an official visit. “Rabbi Levinstein’s verbal attack not only hurts women in Israel but also hurts the IDF, the IDF’s heritage and the basic values of the State of Israel.”
Knesset member Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) told Israel Radio that the pre-army academy in Eli should not be recognized for the purpose of government funding while Rabbi Levinstein remained its head.
“This has nothing to do with women. It’s about how we prepare our young people,” she said. “There is nothing that connects Rabbi Levinstein to education.”
Gila Gamliel, Likud’s social equality minister, initially refused to comment on Rabbi Levinstein’s words, saying she wanted to hear the Defense Ministry’s position and that she had “not yet heard” what Levinstein said.
Pressed for a third time, she told Israel Radio that the rabbi’s expressions were “unfortunate” and “ignorant” and that many women, including religious women, served in the army.
But she insisted that it was premature to express a conclusive view because people sometimes retracted their words, so she did not “want to rush.”
In the recording, Levinstein is heard disparaging female soldiers.
“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.”
As for female IDF soldiers in camouflage, Levinstein speculated that it was just practice for something far more important.
“Someone told me recently, ‘Don’t worry. They’re just practicing putting on makeup for their wedding day.’ I don’t know who will marry them. She’ll tell the kids battlefield stories at night. That’s what they call the new family, right? Two fathers. It’s a madhouse. Simply a madhouse.”
Levinstein went on to talk about the benefits of marrying young, before categorizing all of the women who serve in Caracal, one of the IDF’s mixed gender infantry battalions, as unattractive.
Retired Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevah-Wiesel, who advised army brass in issues relating to women, called the comments, “infuriating” and “cowardly” and said rabbis who held views like Levinstein’s were just “scared” because “the train has already left the station” and religious girls are joining the army.
She said that 85% of religious girls in the army told a survey that their religiousness had either stayed the same or intensified during their service.
Some 4,000 religious girls currently serve in the IDF, Tevah-Wiesel said.
Levinstein’s comments, while drawing fire, drew support from other rabbis, reflecting longstanding tension between the military, which has made efforts toward gender equality, and its religious branches.
Last year, the appointment of Eyal Karim as chief army rabbi was put on hold due to comments he had previously made saying that it is “entirely forbidden” for women to serve in the army for reasons of modesty. He later apologized for the remarks.
Drafting women was “not operational” and hurt the army’s social unity, said Rabbi Dovid Fendel, head of a yeshiva in the southern city of Sderot, to Israel Radio. The IDF was “abandoning its values” for “agendas” that contradicted the values of Judaism, he said, adding that he thought there was an attempt to “silence” Levinstein.
Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel, another teacher in the Eli academy, defended Levinstein and said it was “abnormal” for women to serve alongside men.
Levinstein drew censure last year after a speech he gave calling homosexuals “deviants.” He wrote a letter to the Defense Ministry, explaining his comments, but has had many of his activities with the military cut short in light of his controversial remarks.
In his televised speech to recruits, Levinstein referenced last summer’s scandal, saying he met recently with an IDF general to smooth things over.
In his latest remarks, Levinstein also discussed gay men.
“They call them ‘new families,’ with two dads. It’s an insane asylum, simply an insane asylum,” he said, shaking his head.