Fire the Rabbi, Not the Chief of Staff

It’s not the army’s job to promote ideological societal agendas – not religious ones, and also not feminist ones

Israel Harel
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Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.Credit: Nir Keidar
Israel Harel

The chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, demanded Wednesday that the prime minister fire the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff. “Turn in the keys and go home,” the rabbi (in an interview with Army Radio!) urged Gadi Eisenkot.

He claims that Eisenkot has adopted “a crazy feminist agenda.” Another pearl from the interview: “Following the report on a decline in motivation to serve, you should have started packing .... You’ve done too many things to reduce motivation, especially the war against religious soldiers.”

So I’d like to tell the rabbi: It’s not the chief of staff who has been eroding motivation, but you and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Your ridiculous, irresponsible statements are what have reduced motivation among yeshiva students. Rabbi Aviner holds no official position, but you, a municipal rabbi – a civil servant – must resign.

Granted, Rabbi Aviner hasn’t called for the firing of the chief of staff, but in terms of impact, his statements are even worse than yours. “Until there is total separation between men and women in the IDF,” he told his students, “it’s forbidden to enlist.” In that case, who is undermining motivation?

About a week before these comments were made, our family sat in the stands overlooking the parade ground of a major IDF base. We were there with hundreds of other families to watch the graduation parade of an intelligence officers’ course in which our loved ones would become officers and embark on command positions in the sophisticated, daring and highly capable corps that serves as the ears and eyes of Israel’s security.

In integrated columns, with no separation whatsoever, the male and female cadets entered the parade ground, marching in step. We immediately saw a sight that we wouldn’t have seen even a few years ago: About a quarter of the female marchers were wearing skirts. A man sitting behind me spotted his granddaughter and pointed her out. Though she was wearing pants, he told me, she too was religious – and the same went for other female cadets on the parade ground.

Eyes and cameras were drawn to one of the women who wore a head covering rather than the intelligence corps’ beret. The green beret wouldn’t fit over her head covering, so the parade commander naturally exempted her from this requirement. After the cadets received their ranks and were dismissed, we couldn’t hide our excitement at the sight of her three young children running toward her and hugging her tightly.

Stories of the very useful service by religious women are now well known. The influence of rabbis who forbid women to enlist is waning, and that, naturally, is one (more) reason for Rabbi Eliyahu’s boorish tone and Rabbi Aviner’s religious ruling.

But their principled opinion, even if not the way they express it, is shared by more than a few rabbis who serve as teachers in yeshiva high schools, religious high schools for girls and hesder yeshivas that combine Torah study with army service. And these schools contain both quantitatively and qualitatively significant reserves of future IDF draftees.

What particularly upsets them is the Joint Service Order for mixed-gender service in combat units like the Armored Corps, which the IDF has been systematically promoting. They argue, as do some former senior Armored Corps officers, that the point of this joint service isn’t strictly military, but is mainly intended for public relations.

This wrangling isn’t good for either side. The chief of staff could bridge the divide by adopting the formula – which applies in all circumstances – that the army’s duty is to win wars. It’s not the army’s job to promote ideological societal agendas – not religious ones, and also not feminist ones. This would also allow it to continue fulfilling its role as the army of the entire nation.