Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday issued a fresh broadside against institutionalized religion, accusing Israel’s religious pre-military academies of training private militias who will obey rabbis rather than commanders.
The comments by Liberman, who is campaigning as a defender of secular values, were quickly condemned by the prime minister and members of the national religious community.
“They are cultivating soldiers whose subordination is not to the direct military commander but to spiritual authority, to the rabbi,” Liberman said during an interview at the annual Herzliya conference on policy.
Teachers at some religious academies have faced accusations of sexism and homophobia over lessons taught to cadets in which women have been called “weak-minded” and homosexuals “deviants.”
Religious soldiers have also drawn fire for objecting to IDF ceremonies and events featuring female performers or mixing of the sexes, with critics describing their demands as a form of religious coercion.
At the conference, Liberman, a former defense minister, described his party’s goal in the coming September 17 elections as restoring Israel “as a normal country” in the face of religious influence.
“There is an amazing phenomenon going on and I am very concerned by it, and I am talking about the religious pre-military academies,” he said.
“The religious preparatory programs have produced some of the bravest fighters in combat and I hope they will continue to function, but what is happening today is that the preparatory programs are developing into private religious militias.”
“They are cultivating soldiers whose subordination is not to the direct military commander but to spiritual authority, to the rabbi.”
Liberman called on the next government to cease state support for the pre-military academies, which receive funding from both the defense and education ministries.
As defense minister in 2017, Liberman threatened to pull funding from a pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli after one of its leaders said female soldiers were “crazy” and no longer Jewish.
He backed down from the threat after the attorney general said it was beyond his authority to cut the budget, but the Defense Ministry announced its intention to restrict the number of students as a punitive measure instead.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in response to Liberman’s remarks Tuesday that “religious Zionism is the salt of the earth and has made a tremendous contribution to the IDF and the country.”
Among the graduates of religious pre-military academies and religious Zionism are “many commanders and fighters who gave up their lives for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu wrote. “Someone who rants against Israeli heroes just to gather a few votes should be ashamed.”
Liberman later hit back at the prime minister, saying in a message posted on social media: “Mr. Prime Minister, you are the last one who can teach me and preach to me about religious Zionism.”
“It’s you, Mr. Prime Minister, who made a decision to transfer Hebron to the Palestinians. It’s you, Mr. Prime Minister, who conducted negotiations with [Yasser] Arafat. It’s you, Mr. Prime Minister, who voted in favor of the disengagement in the Knesset. It is you who pay a fee to the Hamas terrorist organization. A little modesty will not hurt you!” Liberman charged, listing decisions made by Netanyahu over the last two decades which were largely opposed by the religious right.
Education Minister Rafi Peretz, who established in the Otzem pre-military academy in Yated near the border with Gaza, slammed Liberman for provoking further division in society.
“Your time has passed. These are the death throes of a career. At a time when society needs unity and the healing of ruptures you are only increasing the flames and deepening the polarization,” he said.
Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister with the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, called graduates of the religious pre-military academies “a pillar” of the IDF “at the forefront of Israeli society.”
National Union head Bezalel Smotrich accused Liberman of merely trying to draw attention with his remarks.
“Well done, Avigdor sweetie, you already got your daily portion of attention in the morning. You can go on with your day,” Smotrich tweeted.
Likud MK Nir Barkat tweeted, “This is not the way to behave. The path to take must be of connection and unity among the people, despite the diversity that characterizes the people of Israel in all its shades and opinions.”
Responding to the wave of criticism, Liberman said his comments were directed at the rabbis who lead the academies and not the cadets themselves.
“The academies, some of which I participated in establishing, are a tremendous and important educational entity,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page.
“I meet the graduate students of the academies and they are the salt of the earth, but in order to preserve this tremendous educational enterprise we must cut them off from the Smotriches and their ilk,” he said referring to the transportation minister who has caused recent controversy with remarks in which he appeared to put religion above the principles of democracy.
“We must remove from them the rabbis who preach values that contradict the IDF’s heritage,” Liberman wrote.
Liberman was slammed earlier this week for a campaign ad that depicted Netanyahu as a Haredi man, with a black hat and sidelocks. Critics called the ad anti-Semitic.
Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition after the April elections due to an impasse between Liberman and ultra-Orthodox parties over legislating quotas for ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army. Whereas Liberman would not budge from the text of an existing bill, the ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose the army draft, refused to accept it.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are natural allies and coalition partners to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, but their influence within the cabinet is resented by secular Israelis as being too invasive in their day to day lives.
Speaking at the same Herzliya conference, Blue and White party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid warned that if Netanyahu wins the next election, Israel will be headed to a “halachic state” — run according to traditional Jewish religious laws.