Rabbi Eli Sadan speaks during a protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Eli Sadan speaks during a protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
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Officers and gentlemen? Religious Zionist flagship academy comes under scrutiny

Illiberal remarks by rabbi-teachers shine spotlight on pre-military institution, whose graduates wield considerable influence in the IDF

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Rabbi Eli Sadan sat down for an interview with Israel’s Hadashot television news last month, exhausted.

The past two years for the Bnei David pre-military academy co-founder have been peppered with media scandals involving his program — a darling of the national religious camp for its funneling of thousands of kippa-wearing officers into the IDF.

In July 2016, Sadan’s partner in establishing the academy, Yigal Levinstein, was recorded calling LGBT people “deviant.” Less than eight months later, Levinstein found himself back in national tabloids for telling new IDF recruits that military service drives female soldiers “crazy” and strips them of their Jewishness. And in February of this year, footage resurfaced of another Bnei David rabbi, Yosef Kelner, lecturing students on women being “weak-minded” and possessing a reduced capacity for spirituality.

But what likely brought Sadan to agree to enter the eye of the storm by sitting down with Israel’s most prominent media outlet in March was the most recent scandal — a lesson he himself gave to the students of Bnei David, in the northern West Bank settlement of Eli.

In that lecture, he asserted that those who teach women from a young age to be independent “neuter their most important capability… to build the home.”

The words may not have been as blunt as the ones that came out of the mouths of his Bnei David colleagues, but the public outcry they drew was no less fervent, with Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) demanding Sadan be summoned for a “disciplinary hearing.”

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) speaks at a gathering of Likud party members and supporters in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, January 27, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

With the Hadashot interview, Sadan was given the opportunity to clarify where he and his institution stood on the hot-button issues raised in the viral lessons. But the much-anticipated sit-down unfolded largely as one might have expected, with the younger, secular reporter demanding an explanation for remarks that the elder, Orthodox rabbi did not really consider problematic.

This does not mean, however, that those interested in finding takeaways from the Bnei David media frenzy are left with nowhere to turn.

Because the responses from within the far-from-monolithic national religious camp to the controversial statements have provided a telling window into a sector whose influence in Israeli society has grown, in no small part due to Sadan and Bnei David.

From introspection to extrospection

Tomer Persico, who researches contemporary religion at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, explained that deciphering the reactions requires separating those that came after Levinstein and Kelner’s classes from those that came in response to Sadan’s.

“Levinstein and Kelner sparked considerable rage from within the national religious camp, even among the ‘Hardalim,'” Persico said, using the Hebrew term to describe the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, flank of the national religious sector.

The pre-military academy, more commonly known as “Mechinat Eli” — the Eli academy — from the name of the West Bank settlement where it is located, came out and apologized a number of times for Levinstein and Kelner’s remarks, Persico noted.

Tomer Persico (Facebook)

He referred to a March article Sadan had penned in the sector’s esteemed Makor Rishon newspaper, in which the rabbi assured readers that the comments made by his colleagues were not representative of his institution, neither in terms of their content nor of the manner in which they were said.

Before Sadan’s own statements were uncovered, there was a “substantive discussion” taking place in the national religious camp, argued Tehila Friedman, the chairwoman of the liberal Modern Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.

“People were much more willing to be critical of those rabbis involved,” she explained.

That criticism was not just in words, but in actions as well.

“Over a third of the attendees at the Jerusalem Pride march, which took place just a week after Levinstein’s remarks [on the LGBT community] were kippa-wearers,” Persico said, illustrating the national religious camp’s desire to disassociate itself from the rabbi’s rhetoric.

The Hartman scholar also referred to a drop both in prospective students and in donations to the academy after Levinstein and Kelner’s lessons went viral.

“But after the Sadan recording, a legitimate feeling of persecution arose from within the sector,” Persico explained.

Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is interviewed by Ynet in February 2018.(Screen capture/YouTube)

Friedman added: “People turned inward and the sentiment among the program’s leaders and the broader sector has evolved to one of victimhood.”

While Bnei David refused The Times of Israel’s requests for comment and even instructed some of its teachers, students, and alumni not to cooperate with the story, one instructor, Rabbi Netanel Elyashiv, agreed to speak on the record.

The 42-year-old, who is among Bnei David’s younger instructors, explained that “while there was no place for what Rabbi Kelner and Rabbi Levinstein had said, Rabbi Sadan’s words were taken out of context.”

The academy founder had been responding to a lecture given by a Tel Aviv University professor who stressed the importance of educating girls from a young age to be independent, so that they would eventually be able to marry or divorce freely, without fear of being financially reliant on their husbands.

In his interview with Hadashot news, Sadan explained that he opposes such an ideology, “which allows young girls to think that family life is something that is marginal.”

“One can disagree with his assertion, but it really is representative of the beliefs of many in the sector he leads,” Elyashiv said.

Elaborating on the feeling of “persecution” that developed in the national religious sector following the widespread release of Sadan’s 2014 lecture, Elyashiv said that “people are plucking two sentences from something he said four years ago, after sifting through thousands of hours of content.”

The Eli academy publishes almost all of its rabbis’ lessons on its website, allowing any member of the public to hear what has been taught in its halls over the years.

Rabbi Netanel Elyashiv gives a lesson at the Bnei David pre-military program on April 24, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

While Sadan and Elyashiv each lamented “an entire system” that was behind the “uncovering” of these recordings, it is largely just one man.

Yair Nehorai told The Times of Israel that despite his position as legal adviser to the Secular Forum — an NGO whose stated aim is to counter religious radicalization — he has acted alone in searching through the countless videos from academy classes, intermittently leaking the more controversial comments he finds to various media outlets.

“When I found Kelner’s lesson, it was downplayed within the sector because nobody’s heard of him. Kelner’s prominence comes simply from him working at Eli,” Nehorai said.

“Then I found Levinstein, and the response (from the national religious camp) was ‘Oh, everyone knows he’s crazy,'” the activist-attorney continued.

“But with Sadan, people realized that the problem runs much deeper. They got defensive and reacted by attacking ‘the system,’ which was really me.”

Rabbi Yosef Kelner (Screen capture/YouTube)

Religious Zionism’s flagship

Perhaps if it was another institution at the center of the media frenzy, reactions within the national religious camp would have been different.

But no institution symbolizes the increased prominence of the sector better than the Eli academy.

When it was founded in 1988 on the hilltops of the then-scarcely populated settlement of Eli, the percentage of religious combat officers in the IDF stood at roughly 2 percent. Today, that number is over 30%, according to Defense Ministry statistics. This, despite the national religious camp making up roughly 10% of Israel’s population.

Sadan’s program was the first pre-military academy for young national religious men. Prior to its founding, devout high school graduates could either be drafted straight into the army or defer service and enroll in hesder yeshivas, seminaries which enable recruits to combine intensive religious text study with roughly a year and a half of army service in their own units.

But for many, the former option led to a distancing from faith in the secular-dominated army, while the latter proved to be the wrong fit for young men less interested in burying themselves in a Talmud for 12 hours each day.

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein speaking at the ‘Zion and Jerusalem’ convention in July 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Eli academy was the answer for those high school graduates who sought the tools to remain religious outside their familiar bubbles, while also completing a full army service of at least three years.

Students accepted into the academy defer their service for a year or two of religious text study combined with lessons on Jewish thought and intensive workouts.

Roughly two dozen religious programs have replicated the recipe Sadan and Levinstein put together 30 years ago, but none have had the same kind of success enjoyed by Bnei David from the standpoint of officer production.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said Eli far and away leads the pack of pre-military academies — religious, secular and mixed — in alumni who have graduated combat officers courses.

The Bnei David website states that of its over 3,500 graduates, at least 40% have gone on to become officers — the vast majority in combat brigades, and in elite units.

Alumni have included storied fallen soldiers Roi Klein, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War when he jumped on a grenade to save his comrades; Emmanuel Moreno, whose photo the IDF has never published due to the sensitivity of the operations he took part in during the same 2006 conflict; and Hadar Goldin, whose remains have been held by Hamas since he was killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

Students at the Bnei David pre-army academy learn in the study hall. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The Eli academy has become the darling of the Israeli defense establishment, with high-ranking IDF generals regularly stopping by to lead a lesson for the students. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even made a point of visiting Bnei David during the 2015 election campaign.

Malka Puterkovsky, the former head of the Midreshet Lindenbaum women’s seminary in Jerusalem and a prominent voice in the progressive Orthodox movement, explained that the Eli academy has been able to attract not just the Hardali flank of the national religious camp, but also students from more liberal backgrounds “who recognize the program’s prestige.”

In May 2016 (just two months before Levinstein’s comments on the LGBT community went viral), that prestige was officially recognized with Sadan receiving the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement.

In announcing the decision, Education Minister Naftali Bennett called Sadan a “Zionist revolutionary,” whose program allowed “thousands of young people to make meaningful contributions to the IDF.”

Forms the elite or attracts them?

But critics argue that the Eli academy has been hiding behind its military contributions, while putting forth a less-than-honest front to its students and the public at large.

Persico argued that Sadan’s comments on feminism proved that his article in Makor Rishon, in which the rabbi insisted Bnei David believes in women’s rights, was nothing more than a public relations ploy.

Female soldiers from the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion train in southern Israel on December 10, 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

“They’re unable to conduct self-criticism because they think they’re a blessing unto all of Israel,” the religious scholar surmised.

Puterkovsky felt similarly about the academy’s initial apologies after the release of Levinstein and Kelner’s remarks.

“They were only made when they noticed that their recruitment numbers for the next year had dropped. It was all posture and they continue to make those kinds of remarks to this day,” she charged.

The former Lindenbaum head argued that after Sadan’s comments the program changed its response to one of victimhood “because a place that the whole world is against is enticing for young men just out of high school.”

Nehorai went further, asserting that the school’s statistics on officer alumni were misleading, as “it only accepts the cream of the crop — people who are intent on becoming officers regardless.”

Eli’s leadership “hides behind messages of love for the state and love for the land, when in reality, it is a small cult working against Israeli democracy,” he alleged.

The attorney-activist argued that the academy’s rabbis encourage students to refuse orders that involve co-ed service.

Former Givati Brigade commander and Bnei David pre-military academy alum Ofer Winter. (Alon Besen/Defense Ministry)

“I respect their right to think the way they do, but they’re trying to slowly turn this country into a theocracy and they’re getting government funding all the while,” Nehorai said.

He was apparently referring to the pressure Sadan, along with other rabbis from the national religious camp, had placed on the IDF’s top brass late last year to change its policies regarding mixed-gender service.

In November, Army Radio reported that rabbis threatened to instruct their students to boycott the IDF’s officer course unless the rules were not updated in their favor.

The strong-arm tactic appeared to have worked. The new IDF policies now allow an officer to refuse assignment to a co-ed unit on account of his religious beliefs, where before, only new recruits could do so.

But one recent alum who requested anonymity rejected the ulterior motive assertions regarding the Eli academy.

“Rabbi Sadan frequently told us that he would prefer there be a religious prime minister before a religious IDF chief of staff, because the latter is appointed in a non-democratic fashion, which might cause people to feel that religion is being imposed on them,” he said.

Alumni speak out

But for many current and former students at the academy, these issues are mere footnotes to their broader experience at the academy.

Jacob Katz, who graduated from the program last February and recently began his service in the Paratroopers Brigade, said gender and sexuality issues were seldom raised in the academy’s halls.

“The main lesson at Eli was about the importance of giving back to the country, and that is what attracts such an incredible body of students to the program,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) shakes hands with Israel Prize winner Eli Sadan at a ceremony in Jerusalem on May 12, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Even the few times women’s issues were raised by Bnei David rabbis, Katz said it was done respectfully.

The 19-year-old recalled a lesson given by Levinstein in which he cautioned students against dating women whom they were not interested in marrying.

“He offered 10 points on marriage that were all really nice ideas. And contrary to how the media might expect him to act, none of the points was about making sure your wife stays in the kitchen,” Katz said.

The recent academy graduate considered it “telling” that the March reveal of Sadan’s feminism remarks had been from a lesson he gave four years ago.

“It proves these comments were the exception, not the norm, and don’t represent the values of the Eli academy,” Katz said.

However, when pressed, the new recruit did recall one lesson given by Levinstein that appeared rather consistent with the one he gave on homosexuality in July 2016.

Katz said the co-founder told a full classroom that those questioning their sexuality should be taken to a doctor for “treatment to confirm whether they’re truly gay or just confused.”

Jacob Katz (courtesy)

The 19-year-old said that he hadn’t been completely sure of what he’d heard and therefore refrained from questioning Levinstein. The rest of the class too remained silent throughout the lecture.

Nonetheless, Katz stood by his position that his alma mater was being unfairly picked on.

“Look, I don’t need to have a sister in the army to know that some of what they’re saying is terrible,” Katz explained.

“They’re not really walking back their comments and that has been disappointing to me. However, when you think about what Eli is, it’s not really a social activist group. This is not their main battle. Their main mission is to send people off to the army to serve their country.”

Another recent alum, Avi (a pseudonym), expressed similar frustration over the recent negative attention the school has been receiving in the press.

“It’s hard because, on the one hand, the academy has a very warm place in my heart, but, on the other, I hear some of these remarks being picked up by the media, and I definitely recognize them having been said in classes I attended,” Avi said.

At the same time, he asserted that the coverage was missing “just how much the rabbis at the Eli academy care about the country and want to make it better.”

For Katz, the main source of his dissapointment with the program was over what he perceived as the Eli academy’s failure to utilize its political clout to campaign for the return of Hadar Goldin’s remains.

“I would like to think that if God forbid something were to happen to me, the mechina (pre-military program) would do everything in its power to bring me back, but I’ve become less and less convinced of that,” Katz said, getting emotional.

For his part, Elyashiv said that the situation surrounding Goldin was more complex, explaining that the government’s policy on the matter is well beyond Eli’s control.

Nothing to fear

But from Puterkovsky’s standpoint, the question becomes what kind of country is the one championed by the rabbis at Bnei David.

“They’re concerned with the state, yes, but not for the one we currently have,” she argued.

In fact, the religious scholar argued that the expanding role of women in the public sphere, and in the IDF in particular, is what has led the rabbis “to lash out” the way they have on women’s issues in particular.

The number of national religious women enlisting in the IDF doubled from 2010 to 2015, according to a Knesset study published in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding Levinstein, Kelner, and Sadan.

The numbers suggested that despite religious leaders’ best efforts, the next generation’s attitudes toward female empowerment are headed in another direction, and that has caused “panic,” Puterkovsky asserted.

Malka Puterkovsky speaks at the Begin Center in Jerusalem on October 18, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

To Hartman religious scholar Shraga Bar-On, fear has been the primary motivator in many of the reactions to the Eli academy scandal.

He argued that both the academy rabbis and the secular public are “motivated by fears, some justified and others not.

“Both camps are afraid to be affected by each other. But when we work for a common goal — the future of Israel — there is no need to fear mutual influence,” Bar-On said.

In fact, he argued that the increased inclusion of both women and religious soldiers have together “helped increase the strength of Israel’s fighting force, helped our ability to realize national goals, and enhanced morality in the army.”

Asked how the Eli academy was moving forward from the months under media scrutiny, Elyashiv offered a similar message of unity.

The Bnei David rabbi called for a dialogue to be held between those in the national religious and secular sectors, “who have been drowned out by the radicals on both sides.”

“People live inside their own bubble, including us. When you live together you see that the other is not so bad — that the conservative isn’t primitive and that the liberal isn’t crazy.”

Elyashiv said Bnei David was not evading the criticism at hand, and was conducting an “internal inspection,” examining “whether we are too often in the conversation of extremes rather than building bridges.”

Generational shift

As for the soon-to-be-70 Sadan, the combination of the Hadashot news interviewer Dana Weiss’s combativeness as well as the intensity of recent attacks against him appeared to have soured him.

When Weiss pushed him to explain why he hadn’t fired Levinstein, Sadan passionately defended his co-founder.

“They took a man who had been teaching for 30 years and found one problematic statement, and used it to color his entire personality,” he said angrily in a response that could very well have been meant to describe how he felt about his own situation.

Hadashot news anchor Dana Weiss (R) plays for Bnei David founder Eli Sadan a clip from one of his lectures during an interview on March 24, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The conversation did not improve substantially from there.

Sadan referred to gay people as those with an “opposite tendency.” When Weiss asked him why he avoided using the word homosexuality, the white-bearded rabbi smirked and said he avoids using the term “because they told me it’s a dirty word.”

Regarding calls for his academy to lose its government funding over the comments made by its rabbis, Sadan fell back on Eli’s military contributions.

“Eli is funded not because its social agenda fits with one thing or another. In the last month, 41 alumni completed the combat officers course, five finished the combat course for company commanders, ten people became pilots. Because of this we received the Israel Prize.”

By the end of the interview, tempers calmed slightly and Sadan attempted to strike a tone similar to the younger Elyashiv, admitting that “perhaps, we need to learn to listen a little more… to learn to be a little more modest.”

“Perhaps,” he was right, but with the fears of Sadan and his colleagues — along with those of their opponents — so ingrained, that task may end up being one for the next generation.

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