Responding to a wave of criticism over disparaging and derisive statements he was recorded making about female soldiers, the head of a prestigious pre-army religious academy said Wednesday that the aggressive tone of his comments may have been inappropriate but he stood by their content.
In footage broadcast by Channel 2 news on Tuesday — a day before International Women’s Day — Yigal Levinstein, the head of the Eli pre-army academy, said that IDF service has “driven our girls crazy.”
“They recruit them to the army, where they enter as Jews, but they’re not Jews by the time they leave,” Levinstein said. “Not in the genetic sense, but all of their values and priorities have been upset and we must not allow it.”
The comments drew broad condemnation from Israeli officials and politicians, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman asserting that Levinstein could be stripped of his position at the Eli academy.
In his first public response to the uproar, Levinstein told Channel 2 news Wednesday that his delivery of the remarks in a mocking and sardonic manner was “inappropriate,” and expressed regret for “hurting people in the way I communicated 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.”
Earlier Wednesday, in a letter to Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Zionist Union faction chair Merav Michaeli demanded the government cut state funding to Levinstein’s academy over his “attack on women.”
Saying that Levinstein’s comments “diminish the status of women and encourage sexism towards them,” Michaeli called on Liberman and Bennett to withhold funding from the Eli institution “until the horrible values the students have been taught disappear altogether.”
The Jewish Home leader pushed back, saying the academy will “continue its activities as normal. What needs to be fixed will be fixed, certainly in regard to these outrageous statements, but without unnecessary exaggeration.”
The Union of Religious Pre-army Academies published an open letter Wednesday calling Levinstein’s comments “inappropriate” and “disrespectful.”
The letter, signed by the heads of 28 institutions, said “the use of this sort of derogatory language… is not our way.”
But in a show of support for Levinstein, two renowned hardline religious Zionist leaders, rabbis Zalman Melamed and Dov Lior, issued a religious directive Wednesday banning men from serving in mixed-gender units in the IDF.
Mirroring Levinstein’s language, the directive said that the Israeli military “destroys modesty” and its guidelines are “directly opposed to the Torah.”
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended female troops, telling a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel was “proud” of its history of integrating females into its fighting forces, going back to biblical times.
“Female Jewish fighters, from the time of Yael the heroine to the present — with Hannah Senesh and the fighters in the Etzel, the Palmach and the Lehi and the IDF, heroic warriors in the police and Border Police that we see here on the streets — are an active, and sometimes very senior, part of our national defense,” the prime minister said.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.