Leading Israeli Rabbi Says 'Healthy Men' Will Be Distracted by Women Soldiers on Mixed Army Missions

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls comments by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and fellow religious-Zionist Rabbi Shlomo Aviner about mixed-gender units 'benighted'

Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
Nir Keidar

Senior religious-Zionist rabbis have come out strongly against mixed-gender units in the Israeli army, with Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu saying Wednesday that men would find it impossible to function properly in the army while serving alongside women.

Speaking on Army Radio a day after Rabbi Shlomo Aviner called on his followers not to enlist in units containing both men and women, even if that meant refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the Safed chief rabbi called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the comments benighted.

“Rabbi Aviner is a responsible person,” Eliyahu said. “He has thousands of students. All his life, he educated with devotion for the benefit of the people of Israel. Maybe Eisenkot should wake up; maybe the prime minister should tell him to go home.”

Eliyahu referenced the #MeToo campaign in his argument against mixed-gender units: “After all the stories about sexual harassment in the world of fashion, culture, theater, the army, the police and the yeshivas, we should realize that we are all human beings with healthy instincts, blessed is the Lord. Any healthy male soldier who is in the company of a female soldier on a mission can’t fulfill it properly. For a healthy person, that is man’s nature.”

The comments by Aviner, who is one of religious Zionism’s most prominent rabbis, were published on the Kipa website on Tuesday. In response to a question by a yeshiva student who is about to enlist and has reservations because of mixed genders in the army, the rabbi said: “It’s a great mitzvah to go into the army and at the same time uphold the Torah’s instruction that men and women should keep very far away from one other.”

The student continued, “Unfortunately, this is not the reality. Many yeshiva students fail to uphold the prohibition against touching; also with hugging.” The rabbi responded, “If so, one should request a unit where there are no women, such as an elite combat unit or a Haredi unit – a unit of ultra-Orthodox soldiers.”

The student persisted, saying this too was impossible. The rabbi then answered: “If that’s the case, then unfortunately, for now, one shouldn’t go to the army. Either a separate unit or don’t enlist for now.”

“So we’re rebelling against the army?” the rabbi was asked. “God forbid!” the rabbi responded. “We dearly love the IDF and will absolutely enlist when the problem is solved.”

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Aviner added that “if one receives an immoral order – such as serving alongside women – tell your commander politely that this is not why you joined the army.”

Aviner strongly supports the draft for religious soldiers and has objected to refusing orders when it comes to evacuating settlements. However, his attitude regarding men and women serving together is extremely strict.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he strongly rejected the “blatant intervention of external agencies into army matters – including rabbis, no matter how lofty their status. This is unacceptable and damaging to state security and the state. The IDF is not a feminist or chauvinist army, and all its considerations are operational.”

He continued, “I call on Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner to retract their benighted statements and in future avoid making similar statements that could harm the strength and legitimacy of the IDF.”

In an interview with Israel's Reshet Bet, MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Habayit Hayehudi party said "There are professions for men and there are professions for women, this is how Lord Almighty created the world and this is the right way for the world. Everyone that tries to blur these simple distinctions does wrong to himself and to the world."   

The rabbis’ comments were made against the backdrop of, among other things, the appointment of Maj. T. as a squadron commander in the Israel Air Force. T., 35, was trained in a transport squadron and will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. She will be the first female pilot to ever hold that position and rank.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, also a leading member of the religious-Zionist community, dismissed the rabbis’ comments.

“I totally reject the call to avoid the draft and the brazen call to fire the chief of staff,” he tweeted. “These calls stem from a sincere but erroneous anxiety felt by several groups that believe the IDF has decided to embrace a feminist-liberal-radical agenda, at the expense of future operations and victory in war. Specific instances such as shaving off beards and common washroom facilities are interpreted by these people as an affirmation of their belief. This conception, as stated above, is wrong.”