Rabbi Declares War on Women Serving in Israeli Army

Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, wants to 'explain the sinful dangers of army service' to high school girls.

If there’s a clear sign that an increasing number of Orthodox girls are interested in serving in the Israel Defense Forces after they graduate high school, it’s the fact that a new campaign is being launched against the trend from one of the country’s most prominent conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of the city of Safed and a member of the council of the Chief Rabbinate, is formally lobbying the heads of schools for Orthodox girls to refuse entrance to organizations who wish to discuss options available to them in the IDF, and encourage them to serve in the army. He has announced that he has plans to form an organization to travel to schools to discourage the phenomenon.

In a letter to Rabbi Asher Corsia, the principal of a Modi’in Bnei Akiva school, that was distributed to students at the school and published on an Orthodox feminist Facebook group, Eliyahu declared, that “army service exposes the girls to inappropriate situations that damage a faithful girl emotionally, and unfortunately, sometimes physically. Army service is inappropriate for a Daughter of Israel.”

He said girls should be “encouraged” to seek out “quality service” opportunities where there is adequate protection of “female sanctity” and “spirituality.”

In Israel, Orthodox women are eligible for exemptions from army service if they do national service in its place. Many, however, choose to enlist in the army, and the army maintains several programs that attempt to help women serve without violating their religious beliefs. Eliyahu accused organizations that encourage army service of “lying” when they claim women are able to serve in the IDF and retain or even strengthen their religious beliefs over the course of their service. He said that in conversations with girls who had served and with their parents, it was clear that it was difficult for religious girls to adapt to a setting that was “secular, mixed, with a frivolous atmosphere of mingling between the sexes.”

He wrote: “We come to stress the absolute forbidden nature of girls serving in the army, as army service greatly damages girls’ faith and values. We recommend that educational institutions refuse to open their gates to organizations that encourage army service and call on everyone to strengthen their girls’ determination to serve their people and their country in a holy manner.”

Eliyahu’s opposition to women serving in the army is nothing new. In fact, he has taken his position a step further: not only declaring that Orthodox girls must not serve in the army, but has severely restricted their options as to the form of national service they do. Last year, he said that such service was only appropriate if it took place “in a private home or another private space, where the girl is not under the supervision of strangers.” He ruled out service in large public institutions, specifically mentioning hospitals and police stations as inappropriate settings for service.

In the conclusion of the letter, he said he was planning a meeting for all religious school principals on the topic and emphasized that he was “creating a body that will go to schools and explain to the girls the sinful dangers of army service” and asked for their “cooperation” in this effort.

Eliyahu is no stranger to controversy. His remarks regarding Arabs and homosexuals torpedoed his desire to run for the position of chief Sephardic rabbi.

Even so - it’s bad enough that a senior on the government payroll would publicly declare that young women in his community should not only refrain from defending their country, but from helping the sick in government hospitals or supporting law enforcement. The fact that he would use his position of authority to enter publicly-funded schools to actively preach against it is truly outrageous.

Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed.Credit: Nir Kafri

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