Series of scandals rocks Israeli Orthodox Zionism

The gay-hate speech of Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, past statements by IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim and the indictment of Gen. Ofek Buchris on alleged rape must drive Orthodox Zionism to do some serious soul-searching.

al-monitor Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk behind Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City Feb. 22, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Topics covered

zionism, yigal levenstein, rape, orthodox, naftali bennett, idf, gay

Jul 25, 2016

First there was the “Gays are Perverts” speech by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, one of the leading educators of the younger generation of Orthodox Zionism. This was followed by the disturbingly unenlightened ideas expressed by Col. Eyal Karim, who is designated to become the next chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Then came Orthodox former commander retired Maj. Gen. Gershon HaCohen’s defense of Orthodox Zionist Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris upon being accused of rape. All of this should compel Orthodox Zionism to engage in some serious soul-searching.

Even when taken individually, each incident is so unacceptable that its very roots should come under investigation. When these events follow one another in a period of weeks, they expose the powerful forces at work to change the very essence of Orthodox Zionism as we once knew it.

At the center of each of these incidents are some of the most senior and influential figures in Orthodox Zionism, the very people charged with educating the next generation. For that reason alone, what happened cannot be considered a series of stand-alone incidents. They represent a line of thought and action that must prompt a much more comprehensive debate than simply focusing on “incitement against gays and lesbians.”

HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett did have the courage to renounce Rabbi Levenstein’s “pervert speech,” even if it meant coming out against a popular figure who plays a dominant role in his own religious Zionist electorate. On the other hand, he did not go far enough. For example, he did not demand that Rabbi Levenstein be removed from his position as head of the pre-military yeshiva in Eli. The reason for this is simple. While Bennett realizes that Levenstein’s remarks are destructive and ignorant, and that they are tearing Orthodox Zionism apart from the inside, he is also aware that Levenstein’s followers have enormous public and electoral strength — as evidenced by the hundreds of rabbis who signed a letter in support of Levenstein. Bennett focused on Rabbi Levenstein’s boorish remarks about gay people, but he ignored the fact that Levenstein also said that reform Jews are ''part of Christianity.'' Obviously this would have been one battle too many for him. At the same time, Bennett also ignored the underlying principle behind Rabbi Levenstein’s comprehensive ideology, which advocates the superiority of Jewish law and religion over national institutions, chief among them the IDF.

In exactly the same way, remarks made by Karim are not some slip of the tongue. They represent a very detailed and comprehensive worldview with a chauvinistic, homophobic basis, which has absolutely no regard for the IDF’s moral principle of “Purity of Arms.” In a series of Jewish law answers that he gave to the website Kippa between 2002 and 2003, which came into the spotlight when it was announced that he would be appointed to this new position, Karim claimed that women must be subject to their husbands and that gay people are defective.

Asked if soldiers should be allowed to commit rape in wartime, he answered that as part of the efforts to maintain the army’s battle readiness and keep the soldiers’ morale high, it is permissible to “burst through” the barriers of modesty and “satisfy the evil inclination by sleeping with good-looking gentile women against their will.” He justified this by citing the difficulties faced by fighters and the need to ensure their success.” He also gave religious sanction to the killing of wounded terrorists. Despite the severity of these remarks, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot made do with Karim’s subsequent clarifications and decided to leave the appointment as is. Eizenkot has already been targeted by certain factors in the Orthodox Zionist community for limiting the beard-shaving exemption, which allows religious soldiers to grow beards, and his decision to return the teaching of Jewish Awareness to the Education Corps instead of rabbis. When it came to Karim, however, it looks like he didn’t want to push too much.

The incident concerning Buchris also highlights the gap between state values and religious views on attitudes toward women. Buchris is a highly regarded officer who became a symbol of heroism and fearlessness when he was injured in the Battle of Jenin during the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield. A graduate of the pre-military academy affiliated with Yeshivat Ateret Jerusalem, Buchris was marked as someone who would eventually serve on the general staff of the IDF. The charges of rape, for which he was indicted July 21, represent more than just a terrible personal crisis for him. It is a blow to Orthodox Zionism itself, since he is one of its most prominent representatives among the senior officers of the IDF.

Obviously Buchris deserves a fair trial, but so far it is hard to ignore the fact that he lied when he said that he did absolutely no wrong and had no contact with the plaintiff. Testimonies from the investigation show that he already admitted to kissing her. The person who came to his defense was HaCohen, his former commander, also associated with the Orthodox Zionist movement. In an interview with Army Radio July 22, HaCohen compared Buchris to King David, who sinned with Bathsheba, saying, “We must remember Buchris' bravery, despite the serious acts he is accused of. I'm with the Bible on this. David remained the King of Israel despite the fact it was clear what happened with Bathsheba.” It is a horrible thing to say, but even with his apology, what HaCohen said should not be considered another slip of the tongue. After all, this is not the first time that HaCohen has given voice to his chauvinistic worldview. HaCohen, who is still a prominent and influential figure not only among Orthodox Zionists but also among the general public, was actually trying to preserve the status of Buchris as a hero of war, despite his criminal behavior as an alleged sexual predator.

Included in the category of influential figures and educators in the Orthodox Zionist community who challenge the moral principles of the State of Israel, the IDF and the spirit of the 1948 Declaration of Independence is the commander of the Givati Brigade during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, Col. Ofer Winter. Winter was behind the decision to replace Sarit Hadad, a popular woman singer who volunteered to sing to the soldiers, with a male singer, Moshe Peretz. At the time, it was argued that as a religious person, he could not allow a woman to perform before his troops. In the meantime, Winter was promoted to brigadier general. While no one challenged his military abilities, it is appropriate to delve into the significance and ramifications of his worldview.

The way things look now, it is impossible to continue ignoring the rift between Orthodox Zionism and state values — a rift that rocks the Israeli society boat, by standing in direct defiance to the values of the State of Israel and the spirit of the IDF. All of this must be investigated in depth.

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