‘They Are Enlisting Our Girls’: The Cost of Israel’s Culture Wars
Rabbi Yigal Levenstein: ‘How Can You Marry a Girl Who Has Served in the Army?’
By Eetta Prince-Gibson
Last week, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who heads a religious pre-army program that has received more than 10 million shekel from the state, told an all-male group of future recruits:
“They are enlisting our girls…They come out being non-Jewish; this is crazy, their value system is completely deformed. Forget the secular girls, they are already completely crazy, but religious girls, they have completely gone mad.”
Then he added, “How can you marry a girl who has served in the army?” The group of young men giggled like horny teenagers as the cameras rolled.
After the public outcry, Levenstein apologized for the tone of his talk, which indeed was more suited to a freshman locker room than a lesson in Torah. But he made it clear that he had no intention of apologizing for the substance.
Levenstein could be dismissed as an exception—except that he heads the prestigious Bnei David pre-army academy, that prepares young religious men to serve in elite military units and that several other prominent rabbis in similarly prominent positions quickly came to his defense. And his behavior could be described as an aberration—except that last year, he called LGBTQ people perverts and more than 300 rabbis wrote a letter in his defense.
No, Levenstein is neither an exception nor an aberration. He is part of an increasingly vocal group of rabbis who are upset because “nasty” young religious women are changing the rules of the game. And, like most patriarchal, authoritarian men, he is trying to hold on to his position.
But he’s losing the grip. Young religious women do not have to go into the army—by law, they are exempt from mandatory conscription. All that have to do is declare that, because of their religious beliefs, they do not want to be drafted—and, just like that, they are excused.
Yet, every year, according to data provided by Emunah, the World Religious Zionist Women’s Organization, there is a 10 percent increase in the rate of military enlistment by religious women. And nearly 10 percent of the religious women who do enlist serve in combat and combat-support roles, where they come in close contact with men. The vast majority of them remain religious throughout their army service and afterwards.
Perhaps these women don’t worry about “who will want to marry them,” and worry more about taking their role as religious women in the modern world.
It’s that modern world, I believe, that is really troubling Levenstein and his supporters. He warns that “they” are enlisting “our” girls. “They” refers to the State of Israel, from which he has distanced and alienated himself. By referring to the rest of us as “they,” he reveals that his real struggle isn’t to guard the purported virtue of his young women. Rather, he is declaring an all-out culture war against the State of Israel.
Despite his disparaging the secular girls who are “already crazy,” Levenstein’s rant shows that the real divisions in Israel aren’t between religious and secular Israelis, but rather between fundamentalist and liberal world views.
Israel is a multicultural society, and, as the state of the Jewish people, it is here that we must find the balance between Judaism’s internally conflicting values. It is here that we must learn to resolve inherent tensions between Judaism and modernity, and, in the words we have used in this magazine many times, between democracy and theocracy.
I understand that religious Israeli men may feel uncomfortable serving with women in the army, and I believe that society is responsible for taking their sensibilities and beliefs into account. But they, too, have a responsibility towards the rest of us: They must forgo the extremists, like Levenstein, in their own camp. They must accept that the Israel Defense Forces and the state will not abandon basic liberal values of equality, fairness and equal opportunity in order to accommodate their fundamentalist views.
Religion already has a very strong hold on our lives here. Because of the religious political parties and the secular politicians who grovel before them, marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and many other aspects of our lives are controlled by rabbis who hold to the most darkened, fundamentalist views of women and the world.
But for radical fundamentalists like Levenstein, all that still isn’t enough. But he and his ilk should not be allowed to rage their culture war at our expense. The rest of us should not pay for Levenstein and his cohorts to spread their hatred, misogyny and bigotry.
Our tax dollars should not support his pre-military academia until he is removed. The state must stand up to their demands, because those demands will never end until the entire democratic fiber of our society is subjugated to their dark view of the world.