Amid women’s enlistment row, army nixes meet with chief rabbi

Chief of staff reportedly orders IDF chief rabbi to cancel scheduled sit-down with Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi over criticism of mixed-gender units

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends the cornerstone laying ceremony for Nezer HaTalmud Yeshiva in Beitar Illit on September 19, 2016. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends the cornerstone laying ceremony for Nezer HaTalmud Yeshiva in Beitar Illit on September 19, 2016. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

A meeting between the army’s top rabbi and Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi was canceled Sunday amid growing tensions between the IDF and top rabbis over recent comments about women’s military service.

No official statement has been made by either the IDF or the office of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, but Hebrew media reports said the meeting between Yosef and IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim was canceled at the order of the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday he had banned Yosef and two others rabbis from participating in military events after they spoke out against the enlistment of female soldiers.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. (Flash90)

Speaking at an Ashdod event, Liberman said there was “no place” for statements made by Yosef, as well as rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu and Shlomo Aviner. “Women have always been a part of the security of the Jewish people, from Deborah the prophet… to (World War II paratrooper) Hannah Szenes,” he said. “The present radicalization is completely unreasonable.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Liberman said rabbis who are state employees “must represent the state” and therefore would not be allowed at official events until they withdraw their comments.

Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, told Army Radio on Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should fire Eisenkot over his policy of allowing integration of female soldiers in combat units.

Responding to news that the Air Force had appointed its first female squadron commander, Eliyahu said in the interview that “the army has adopted a crazy feminist agenda. I don’t know what’s gotten into Eisenkot. Cabinet ministers and the prime minister should tell Eisenkot, ‘You have to go packing and go home, you have done too much to lower the motivation to enlist, especially waging war on religious soldiers.’ I call on the prime minister to tell Eisenkot, ‘Go home.’”

For his part, Netanyahu rejected Eliyahu’s demand outright, saying in a statement while on a state visit to India: “I am proud we have a first female aviation squadron commander. Not only will I not condemn the chief of staff, I commend him and the Air Force commander. I expect more such appointments.”

The following day, Chief Rabbi Yosef praised Eliyahu for “his steadfast upholding of the Chief Rabbinate’s instructions on the issue of female enlistment.”

Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

The cancellation of the Sunday meeting drew criticism from the rabbis’ supporters. Jewish Home lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich called the chief of staff’s reported order to the army’s top rabbi “apparently illegal.”

“By law, the IDF chief rabbi is a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council headed by the chief rabbi [Yosef], so the two are supposed to meet and work together. The politics of the defense minister or orders of the chief of staff are not above the law, and I call on the chief of staff to come to his senses,” Smotrich said.

Some media cited unnamed sources close to Yosef who insisted the meeting was not canceled, but only delayed due to the death of Yosef’s uncle. Neither the army nor Yosef’s office would respond to media inquiries.

The issue of female enlistment, especially into combat units, has become a sensitive one among Orthodox-nationalist religious leaders in recent years, and pitted Israel’s traditionally liberal military leadership against the spiritual leaders of large number of religiously observant soldiers and officers.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

On Tuesday, another leading rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, wrote on an Orthodox news site, Kipa, that it was forbidden to join mixed-gender units, which comprise almost all non-combat units in the IDF, as well as several combat units.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the nationalist-religious Jewish Home party, denounced the calls for draft evasion. Bennett apologized on Thursday for referring to Eliyahu’s remarks as “insolent,” but he stood by his opposition to the rabbis’ positions.

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