The chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, recently circulated a letter to principals of religious girls’ schools in which he opposed military service by women and urged schools not to cooperate with organizations that encourage religious girls to enlist.
About two weeks ago, Mati Alper, a 41-year-old lecturer in marketing from Modi’in, opened an email that his wife had forwarded to him and was astounded to read Eliyahu’s letter, which had been forwarded from his daughter’s school. Alpher’s daughter is a 7th grader at the Orot religious girls’ school in the city. Alper and his wife received the letter from her school’s principal, Rabbi Asher Korsaya. The subject line of the Safed chief rabbi’s letter, which was sent under the official letterhead of Safed’s municipal rabbinate, was “confronting the drafting of girls into the Israel Defense Forces.”
“Currently the girls are beginning the long process of finding a significant service position,” read Eliyahu’s letter, which was sent to heads of religious girls’ schools throughout the country. “There are non-profit organizations that are encouraging girls to do army service. Military service exposes the girls to situations that are not appropriate, that harm the girls religiously, emotionally and unfortunately also sometimes physically. Military service is not appropriate for a Jewish female … Unfortunately we have received false data from organizations that encourage girls to do [military] service purporting to show that girls who go into the army are [religiously] strengthened in the course of their service.
"We wish to emphasize the total prohibition against girls going into the army,” the letter went on. “We recommend that educational institutions not open their doors to organizations encouraging military service and call upon everyone to reinforce the girls’ desire and need to serve the people and the land through sanctity ... We will shortly be convening a major meeting of principals that will reinforce and encourage you in this important task. In addition, we are establishing an entity that will come to the schools and explain to the girls about the dangers lurking for them in military service.”
The letter outraged Alper, who served in the army, as did his wife. “How can it be that an educational institution is issuing a call not to serve in the IDF?” Alper asked. “If they had only said we prefer national service [in the civilian sector], so be it, but going from that point to say the IDF will not be allowed into our school? We will convene to eliminate the phenomenon? What is this, a plague?”
In response, Alper wrote to a letter Education Minister Shay Piron, which he also posted on his Facebook page. Staff from the ministry contacted him about the matter and the next day Korsaya, the principal of Alper’s daughter’s school, issued a clarification stating that he had sent it to parents by mistake and had only intended to disseminate it to his teachers for purposes of discussion of the matter. For his part, however, Alper said that only made matters worse. “If that’s your opinion,” he said in reference to Korsaya, “stand behind your words.”
Actually Modi’in happens to be the country’s leading city, for the second time, in the rate at which males from the city serve in the IDF. More than 91 percent serve and more than 60 percent are in combat units. The conscription rate for women in Modi’in puts the city in third place nationally.
On a national level, the Chief Rabbinate has no problem with Eliyahu’s efforts. “The Chief Rabbinical Council adopted a decision in Febuary 2013 calling on religious girls to refrain from conscription in the army. That is its official position,” Ziv Maor, spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, said. “I am not a spokesman for Rabbi Eliyahu, but this doesn’t involve a call for draft evasion. Religious women have a system for national service that was created to address the fact that they are not allowed according to halakha [Jewish religious law] to serve in the army.”
However, a senior army source told Haaretz that a “red line” had been crossed. “As long as the army has a dispute with the rabbis over the drafting of girls, so be it, but the moment that an official entity of the State of Israel, on official stationery, tells a state educational institution you shouldn’t let the army or any other civilian entity provide an explanation regarding the service options, that goes beyond the legitimate dispute.”
Korsaya chose not to respond for this article.
For his part, Eliyahu said Israel is the only country in the world where there is still compulsory military service for women. “We believe that aggressive combat is not the most important thing,” he said. “A healthy society also needs soft aspects that embrace and show kindness. We encourage boys to fight because we have no choice. Among boys, the enlistment rate and volunteerism among the national religious is very high. On the other hand, we encourage the girls to contribute on the social service level and not as fighters.
“The State of Israel is allowed to think out of the box,” Eliyahu continued. “The role of the army is to be forever in combat. There is no doubt that girls who enlist contribute where they are serving, but there is also no doubt that if the IDF would look at itself in terms of effectiveness, the conclusion would be that the drafting of girls should be discontinued.”
Eliyahu was a candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel. Although Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced that he would not be able to defend the selection of Eliyahu to the post if he were elected due to Eliyahu’s controversial remarks about Arabs, the Safed chief rabbi is currently a leading candidate for chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
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