Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay on Tuesday forcefully railed against religious Zionist rabbis, accusing of them of sowing discord among Israelis with their “silence” over derogatory comments by their colleagues against women and homosexuals, and their opposition to the Western Wall plaza deal.
“In recent years, at every point of contention in Israeli society, the presence of hardal [an elitist offshoot of religious Zionism that embraces ultra-Orthodox religious mores] rabbis has been conspicuous,” said Gabbay at the Jerusalem Conference, organized by the right-wing B’Sheva paper. “And it stood out, unfortunately, primarily when it was divisive, extreme, discriminatory, and inciting.”
In a combative speech to a largely religious Zionist audience, Gabbay further insinuated that “collective soul-searching” among the national Orthodox after the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin “passed the moment you returned to a position of power.”
In response, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett said he rejected Gabbay’s “spurious accusations” and urged him adopt a more conciliatory tone.
In his broadside, Gabbay rattled off a series of alleged offenses by the religious Zionist rabbinic leadership, from allowing Reform and Conservative Jews to be demoted to “second-class Jewry” in backing the government’s about-face on the Western Wall deal to remaining tight-lipped over government corruption, legislation that “destroys democracy,” and sexist comments from senior members of the community.
“When the rabbi of a pre-military academy accuses the army of drafting girls and making them ‘not Jewish,’ you are silent,” said Gabbay. “When that same rabbi puts down the LGBT community — yes, the time has come for you to recognize reality; LGBTs are also in your community, and they are no less good than anyone else — you are silent.”
He was referring to comments by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Eli pre-military academy, who in March 2017 said that military service makes women “crazy” and has previously referred to gay men as “deviants.”
Levinstein later agreed that his tone had been “inappropriate” and expressed regret for “hurting people,” but said he would not “retract a single word of what I believe.” His remarks, at the time, were condemned by the Union of Religious Pre-army Academies, with the heads of 28 yeshivas in an open letter calling Levinstein’s comments “inappropriate” and “disrespectful.”
That same month, liberal Orthodox rabbis banned their followers from serving in certain mixed-gender army units, also calling on IDF heads to show sensitivity to religious soldiers and not push them into a “ghetto” within the army.
Gabbay also accused moderate Orthodox rabbis of remaining silent over a 2010 letter signed by 18 rabbis calling on Safed residents not to rent their apartments to non-Jews. He also referred to recently surfaced comments by Rabbi Yosef Kelner, also of the Eli pre-military yeshiva, who called women “weak-minded” and contended that they possessed a limited capacity for spirituality.
“And let’s admit it. It doesn’t end only with silence on rabbis’ statements,” Gabbay continued. “When the prime minister and his ministers incite against half the nation and label them ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies’ — you are silent.
“This silence echoed during the Oslo days, and reached a peak before the Rabin murder,” said Gabbay. “Perhaps then, you did a collective soul-searching, but it passed the moment you returned to a position of power.”
He said the religious Zionist rabbis took “an active role” in opposing the government deal to build a non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
“When millions of Conservative and Reform Jews are discriminated against in the Western Wall plaza, and are transformed by the Israeli government into second-class Jews, you are not only silent, you take an active role in this radicalization, which is not backed up by any Jewish law,” he said.
“For heaven’s sake, when will you stop being silent already? When did you give up on the Jewish people?” he added.
Addressing the “moderate” but silent religious Zionists “who agree with this criticism,” Gabbay urged them to speak up.
“I am taking advantage of this platform to tell you, the moderate voices. In your silence you are validating these grave statements,” he said, “and therefore you are deepening and expanding the rift within the Jewish people.”
Bennett, the Jewish Home party leader, chided Gabbay for his tone.
“This is the wrong approach, Avi,” he tweeted. “You attacked hundreds of public leaders who have raised generations of young men and women who dedicate their lives for the public: in the IDF, in education, settlements, periphery and in all fields of life.
“I am proud of them, and I reject these spurious accusations. It is legitimate and even our duty to argue. Not with accusations, with an open ear. We are brothers,” added Bennett.
Since being elected Labor chairman in July, Gabbay has vowed to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next election. But the former Kulanu party minister, who resigned the government in 2016 with an angry tirade accusing the coalition of leading Israel to “destruction,” has irked members of his base with an apparent rightward lurch.
Late last year, he called West Bank settlements “the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism” and said he would not evacuate them as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. This month, however, he said he would promote a unilateral West Bank disengagement plan if he failed to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians as prime minister.
In November, Gabbay said the left had “forgotten what it means to be a Jew,” echoing an infamous hot mic comment by Netanyahu over two decades ago. He has since sought to inject more traditional Jewish values into his party, while rejecting religious coercion and calling for public transportation on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.