Analysis

Settler Rabbi Not Alone in His Growing Frustration With the Israeli Army

Religious leaders of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox camp are failing to bend the army to their will.

An Israeli female soldier from a mixed-gender battalion takes part in a drill in northern Israel, September 13, 2016.
Jack Guez, AFP

Maybe it was International Women’s Day, with all the media stories about religious women’s roles as combatants in the army, and maybe it was a coincidence, but the past week has led to renewed tension between the religious public and the IDF.

Most of the noise, as usual, was generated by the cursing rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, of the religious pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, with his periodic outburst against women, gays, liberals and other enemies of the state and corrupters of the army. But although Levinstein is at the far-right edge of the argument, he is certainly not alone in his views.

Only last week religious journalists and websites reported that rabbis had demanded the intervention of ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to block the IDF’s new male-female joint-service order.

Rabbis Dov Lior and Zalman Melamed, high authorities in the religious Zionist community, issued a halakhic ruling forbidding men to join mixed gender units. The chief education officer-designate promised to enable male soldiers not to serve beside women if they didn’t want to, while the religious Srugim website complained that in the group photograph of the General Staff with President Rivlin, there was only one kippa wearer.

Since Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot took office two years ago, there has hardly been a day of peace between him and the nationalist ultra-Orthodox faction. Still, it seems that all the talk and buzz reflect a growing frustration, which has three main characteristics, all of which were displayed in Levinstein’s horror show: the difficulty in translating the large number of religious combatants into influence on IDF policy; the gap between the large number of junior kippa-wearing commanders and the small number in the top ranks; and the increased enlistment of religious women, including as combatants.

The frustration stems from Eisenkot’s refusal to comply with all the rabbis’ demands, despite a few compromises he’s made, some of which – like in the joint service order – brought criticism from the left and women’s organizations.

While Justice Minister Shaked celebrated her victory in appointing conservative and religious judges to the Supreme Court, the rabbis cannot boast a similar influence on the General Staff. The reason is clear – the considerable rise in the number of religious combat officers started in the early ‘90s, so their influence among the brigadier generals and generals will be felt gradually, only in about five years’ time.

There have been religious generals in the past – Yair Naveh, Elazar Stern, Yishai Bar and others. But most came from a specific group of graduates of the Netiv Meir Yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. The thought that the chief of staff is deliberately delaying religious officers’ promotions is absurd – even stranger is the claim that case of Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris was a plot to sabotage “the first religious chief of staff.”

Anyone who knows Eisenkot knows this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Buchris was one of the officers he liked and respected, until his sex offenses were revealed. Buchris’ military career was terminated, but this had nothing to do with the kippa on his head.

The rabbis are also seething over the increased enlistment of religious women, whose number has more than doubled in recent years, as Levinstein’s outburst against women combatants (“They won’t be Jewish when they leave the army”) attests. Already, one of 10 IDF female combatants is religious and their number is expected to grow.

In January the nationalist ultra-Orthodox organization Hotam distributed a video warning religious women of the perils of army service.

The army is not indifferent to this pressure. Part of the chief of staff’s attempt in recent months to reduce the IDF’s preoccupation with contentious political and ideological issues comes in response to the religious community’s criticism.

A few months ago a furor broke out over Eisenkot’s revoking a tender for education workshops for officers. He said the Education Corps will conduct the workshops itself, as of this summer. The decision followed a campaign by rightist organizations against the Hartman Institute, an esteemed progressive Orthodox institution, and the secular pre-military academy Bina, which were to conduct the workshops, claiming the officers would be exposed to dangerous liberal propaganda.

The rabbis want Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to step in and constrain the trends that are troubling them in the IDF. If this had been Levinstein’s intention, he achieved the opposite. Bennett has so far not intervened while Lieberman and even the prime minister quickly issued statements in support of female soldiers and combatants.