Opinion

At Pre-army Yeshivas, Discrimination Against Women Is the Norm

Military service is the first framework where young religious women can practice independence instead of training to care for men. Of course the religious Zionist establishment is threatened

women soldiers
Michal Fattal

At a time when Israel swings wildly between two hyperrealistic extremes, when there is a risk of war with Iran and Syria on one hand and anxiety over possible criminal charges against the prime minister on the other hand, it is particularly difficult to address annoying topics like the insults hurled by the rabbi of the Bnei David pre-military yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli against women and teenage girls. But it is precisely on account of the constant tumult in Israel – that occasionally boils over into genuinely frightening danger zones – that the infuriating comments, which are especially humiliating to the women of the religious Zionist community, can no longer be tolerated.

The floodgates were opened by Eyal Karim, now the chief rabbi of the army, who implied that the wartime rape of women was a necessity that must be accepted. He was followed by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who announced that women shouldn’t serve in the military because “they aren’t Jewish when they come out [of the army].” Rabbi Yosef Kelner continued this absurdity. He told his male students – who are about to enlist – that women are dull-witted, incapable of spirituality and fit only to crochet kippot for menfolk, and the most they could aspire to later on was to stir a pot, hold a screaming baby and chatter on the phone. His comments inspire terror and ridicule simultaneously.

What, then, is the likelihood that young men who hear this nonsense daily will treat the women they encounter in the army, and beyond, with respect? What is the likelihood that they won’t end up severely ignorant and biased against the very women who are closest to them? It is precisely as a result of such twisted values that so many young women in the religious Zionist (and ultra-Orthodox) communities choose to remain single, rather than risk finding themselves married to a rude boor who belittles them and keeps them from developing fully. Don’t the rabbis understand the reason that growing numbers of young women in the community refuse to marry yeshiva graduates, opting instead for secular men who treat them as equals?

It’s obvious that the rabbis’ verbal attacks on women stem from the fact that the majority of teenage girls and young women in the religious Zionist community have declared their independence. To most of them, military service is the first step on the road of self-fulfillment that is so important to them. They know that if they are sufficiently determined, the army can give them, for the first time, a genuine opportunity to prove their skills and capabilities — and not only in crocheting kippot or in the fields of education and caring for men, for which their religious society grooms them, but also in the arenas in which all young Israelis, male and female, compete.

Military service is the first framework in which young religious women are not surrounded by people – teachers, counselors and often even parents – who try, almost forcibly, to curb the natural development of their capabilities and to channel them almost exclusively into roles of service and caring for men. It is this liberty that the army offers to young women to discover the powers hidden within themselves that so thoroughly scares the rabbis who need young women who are held back, so that the young men of the community can have suitable partners, who are willing to endure humiliation and subjugation.

This pseudo-religious education in the pre-military yeshivas and ulpana high schools for girls embeds a serious defect in the hearts and minds of their students, male and female alike. The time has come for the responsible parties – including the parents, the rabbis and certainly the appropriate authorities within the army – to recognize the far-reaching implications of this and to end it decisively.