Livnat and Netanyahu Flash 90
Limor Livnat, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Zvi Hauser, Nov. 27, 2011. Photo by Flash 90
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Secular and religious cabinet members engaged in a heated discussion over the issue of women's rights in Israel on Sunday, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weigh in and urge further dialogue.

The public debate over the exclusion of women from public spaces has recently come into view with the refusal of religious soldiers to attend official Israel Defense Forces events which feature women's singing.

Commenting on the issue last week, Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, head of the Israel Defense Forces' personnel directorate, who was appointed by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to examine the role of women and religious soldiers in the army, said that women's military service should not be impaired over religious demands.

The army "must make it possible for every female soldier and any woman to sing at any ceremony and on any stage. We must enable both religious soldiers and women to have a significant army service, and [we must] not exclude them from tasks," Barbivai said.

During the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, however, the issue caused a conflict of sorts between Shas minister Meshulam Nahari, on the one side, and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat along with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, on the other.

The heated exchange was prompted by Livnat's announcement that she will convene the Ministerial Committee on the Status of Women, which she heads, to discuss the exclusion of women from Israeli public space.

"It would seem that there had been great advancements in women's standing," Livnat said, adding, however, that "with every step forward we're making one backward."

"Lately, there has been a worrisome deterioration in the status of women in the public arena. The exclusion of women is also violence against women – women need to get on buses from the back door, posters depicting them are banned or otherwise burnt, they cannot sing before men nor mourn for their loved ones at funerals," Livnat added, calling these happenings attempts to deprive women of the most basic rights in a democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and the right to dignity."

"Where there's an exclusion of women, violence against women eventually grows, the culture and sports minister added.

According to sources present at the meeting, Livnat's statement prompted Shas' Nahari to defend religious soldiers and their rights, saying: "We must respect the religious public who finds women's singing offensive."

In return, deputy PM Meridor said: "I don't understand this wave of extremism [overtaking the religious public]," adding that "generations of soldiers served in the army and there were always female soldiers in military musical bands, and no one seemed to object."

The exchange finally caused Netanyahu to weigh in on the debate, saying that just as the "ultra-Orthodox and the religious have issues they won't back down from, so do the secular, and the exclusion of women and [banning] women's singing are examples of such issues."

The premier then added that solutions to the debate must be found during a process of dialogue.

Earlier this month, Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh said that Israel Defense Forces soldiers should choose death before they remain at army events which include women's singing.

The comment came after 19 reserve major generals sent a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF chief Gantz, imploring them not to allow harm to come to women's service in the army as a result of religious soldiers' demands.

The reserve officers indicated that their appeal comes in response to a series of recent events, including the boycotting of military ceremonies by religious cadets due to women singing.

The petitioners warned in their letter about harm caused to the motivation of women to serve in the army, as well as to what they termed damage to "the fundamental values of Israeli society."

However, in a radio interview, Rabbi Levanon criticized a possible ruling that would forbid religious soldiers from leaving events over women's singing, saying that IDF soldier should choose death before complying with such an order.

"[The IDF] is bringing close the day in which rabbis will have to say to soldiers 'you have to leave those events even if there's a firing squad outside, and you'll be shot to death," Levanin said.