Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the national religious Jewish Home party, on Wednesday denounced calls for draft evasion issued by prominent right-wing rabbis, one of whom also said the IDF’s chief of staff should be fired for promoting women’s service in combat roles.
“I completely reject all calls to refuse to enlist to the IDF, and the rude call to fire the chief of staff,” Bennett tweeted. “These calls stem from a genuine but misguided fear among certain groups that the IDF has decided to adopt a feminist-liberal-radical agenda, at the expense of operational readiness and winning the war.
“Certain isolated events — like forcing soldiers to shave their beards and having mixed-gender bathrooms — are interpreted by those people as confirmation of their claims,” he continued. “Again, these claims are mistaken. The IDF is focused on its purpose: securing the citizens of Israel. I trust the IDF, its commanders and the chief of staff and completely reject any sort of call to refuse enlistment.”
Bennett was alluding in part to remarks earlier Wednesday by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, whom Bennett himself championed for the role of chief rabbi of Israel several years ago. Eliyahu told Army Radio that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should fire IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
“The army has adopted a crazy feminist agenda,” said Eliyahu. “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 the religious soldiers.’ I call on the prime minister to tell Eisenkot, ‘Go home.'”
Later on Wednesday, Netanyahu rejected Eliyahu’s demand, which came a day after the army’s announcement that a woman would command an aviation squad for the first time.
“I am proud we have a first female aviation squadron commander,” said Netanyahu, who is in India on an official state visit. “Not only will I not condemn the chief of staff, I commend him and the Air Force commander. I expect more such appointments.”
The major, whose name cannot be published for security reasons and has been identified only as “Tuli,” is to be promoted to lieutenant colonel and will head a squadron of Israel Air Force transport planes.
On Tuesday, another leading right-wing 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.
Asked by a soldier-to-be what he should do if there is no option but to enlist to a mixed-gender unit, Aviner said, “If that is the case, unfortunately in the meantime we should not go to the army. Either go to a unit composed entirely of the same gender, or don’t enlist for now.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also denounced the rabbis, explicitly naming them and calling on them to take back their statements.
“I strongly condemn blatant interference by outside sources in army matters, including by rabbis, respected as they may be,” said Liberman in a statement. “This severely damages national security and national endurance. The IDF isn’t a feminist or chauvinistic army. All its considerations are purely operational.
“I call on Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner to retract these backward statements, to refrain from similar remarks in the future and to stop damaging the IDF’s power and legitimacy,” he added.
Far-right Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich diverged from the positions of his party leader, Bennett, claiming that women “weren’t born for combat roles” and that “blurring the lines” between the genders would have “horrific” consequences.
“In our world there are naturally men and women; each of the sexes has a physiological nature and different characteristics and mentalities, strengths and talents, and they also have roles that are suited for them. The attempt to deny that simple and basic fact, blur those lines and claim that it comes from differences in socialization is laughable and sad,” Smotrich told Army Radio Wednesday morning.
Referring to the new aviation squad commander, Smotrich said: “I’m happy for her, everyone should do what’s good and right for them. There is definitely a minority of women who are probably suited for men’s jobs, and also vice versa, but this is the exception, not the rule… it would be horrific if we all turn into women or all turn into men — the world needs this balance.
“Women are less physically strong; they probably weren’t born for combat roles, they were born for other roles,” added Smotrich, who served in a noncombat role during his IDF service. “We can count on two hands the number of female pilots we’ve had in the air force, and it will probably stay that way even a thousand years down the line.”
Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, a former women’s affairs adviser to the IDF chief of ctaff, rejected Smotrich’s statements.
“I am shocked by the depth of ignorance and his baseless claims,” she told Army Radio. “Women and men undergo the exact same course on their way to becoming a pilot. A large portion of men is similarly unable to perform all the tasks.”
In 1993, a revolutionary ruling by the High Court of Justice permitted women to try out for the IAF’s vaunted pilots’ course for the first time, following a petition by Alice Miller.
In 1998, five years after Miller’s request, and five decades after Israel had its last female aviator, Sheri Rahat graduated from the pilots’ course, becoming a navigator for the F-16 fighter jet, but not technically a pilot.
Three years later, Roni Zuckerman, a granddaughter of Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman, two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, graduated as Israel’s first fighter jet pilot.
Despite those strides, the overwhelming majority of fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force are still men, mostly because of the physical fitness requirements.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.