A controversial Israeli rabbi who made disparaging remarks about female IDF soldiers in March has gone on indefinite leave from the pre-army yeshiva he heads in the West Bank.
The move, reported by Channel 2 news Wednesday, will likely be seen as a victory for Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who called for the resignation of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein and threatened to withdraw accreditation from his academy if he failed to step down.
The furor first erupted after Channel 2 News broadcast a video in which the rabbi — from the prominent Bnei David academy in the settlement of Eli — said that military service drives female soldiers “crazy,” makes them unattractive, and strips them of their Jewishness.
“They recruit them to the army, where they enter as Jews, but they’re not Jews by the time they leave,” he said. “Not in the genetic sense, but all of their values and priorities have been upset and we must not allow it.”
“What happens if there’s a female company commander? This is a question of madness, it belongs in an insane asylum,” Levinstein added. “This is an Orthodox girl. Put aside those who are secular. They’re making our girls crazy.”
As for female IDF soldiers in camouflage, Levinstein speculated that it was just practice for something far more important.
“Someone told me recently, ‘Don’t worry. They’re just practicing putting on makeup for their wedding day.’ I don’t know who will marry them. She’ll tell the kids battlefield stories at night. That’s what they call the new family, right? Two fathers. It’s a madhouse. Simply a madhouse.”
The rabbi’s remarks were widely denounced as sexist, and politicians from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took him to task. Liberman, though, was the only one to call for his resignation, a move that brought him into conflict with Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
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.” He said it “wasn’t right to denigrate the female soldiers,” but added that “women have been taken hostage by the feminist movement.”
Levinstein was subsequently summoned for a hearing at the Defense Ministry, but the meeting was canceled on the order of the attorney general, who ruled that the defense minister lacked the authority to discipline the rabbi or withdraw state funds from his academy.
On Wednesday, Levinstein sent a letter to his students, saying, “Because I have gone on study leave, I would request that you refrain from contacting me during my studies.”
Associates of the rabbi denied that there was any connection between his decision and Liberman’s threats to defund the academy, saying that Levinstein’s request for a leave had been made two months ago, before the scandal broke out.
His Bnei David Academy said in a statement, “Rabbi Yigal Levinstein continues to teach and to stand at the head of Bnei David.”
Women first entered combat positions in the IDF in 2000 with the creation of the Caracal Battalion, stationed along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Two additional coed combat units were added in recent years — the Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion, which serves in the Jordan Valley, and the Bardelas Battalion, which defends Israel’s southern border. A fourth battalion is being planned.
By the end of 2018, the army aims to have 1,100 men and women serving in four mixed-gender units.
The increase has come both due to changes in society, with women’s participation in combat units no longer dismissed, and a shortage in available soldiers due to reductions in the amount of required service time for men.
But it has exposed deep rifts between secular Israelis, who have no problems with mixed-gender units, and Orthodox ones who insist on separating the sexes for reasons of modesty.