On Tuesday, Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu caused a furor when he called for IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot to be fired over his role in integrating women into the IDF. In a follow-up interview on Wednesday, Eliyahu refused to apologize and blamed Eizenkot for the decreasing motivation of young Israelis to draft into combat units.
"Eizenkot is the same person who fought Elor Azariya and let radical leftist organizations into the IDF," alleged Rabbi Eliyahu. "He fought the military rabbinate, which increases motivation to serve, replacing it with radical organizations which decrease motivation."
Rabbi Eliyahu's words caused a storm, and the rabbi was lambasted by MKs and in the media. However, the controversy also showcased the competing views relating to women in the IDF in the Religious Zionist community.
On Thursday, a group of Hesder students, who combine IDF service with religious studies, published an open letter supporting Rabbi Eliyahu. "We, the members of Religious Zionism, strongly protest the violation of the rabbi's honor over the past two days. We also want to strengthen the rabbi in the face of the attacks by various media and politicians, who try to determine for themselves what the rabbi is permitted to say and what is forbidden."
The letter is expected to receive hundreds of signatures from students learning in almost all of the Religious Zionist frameworks, including Hesder Yeshivas, pre-army yeshiva military academies, and regular-post high school yeshivas.
The liberal Bet Hillel rabbinic group also released a statement on Thursday condemning the attacks on Eizenkot. The IDF is not a religious or irreligious army," said Bet Hillel. "As part of the efforts being made by the IDF to increase the number of women in combat units, difficulties arose in the service of religious soldiers in certain battalions. The top echelons of the military command, headed by the chief of staff, are willing to resolve these difficulties and are in contact with religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbis and Rabbis of Beit Hillel, heads of yeshivas, and heads of seminaries. "
The Bet Hillel rabbis also called on the public "to avoid statements that prevent dialogue and cooperation" while acknowledging that "there are difficulties for religious soldiers resulting from the IDF's policy of integrating women into combat battalions". Beit Hillel has published papers encouraging women's army service in the past.
On Wednesday, Jewish Home faction head and Education Minister Naftali Bennett harshly criticized Rabbi Eliyahu, calling him "impertinent'" He denied that the IDF was integrating female soldiers due to political pressure. I completely reject any calls not to enlist in the IDF, and the chutzpa in the demand to replace the Chief of Staff," Bennett said.
"These demands stem from the true but misguided fear certain groups have that the IDF has decided to adopt a liberal, radical, and feminist agenda at the expense of its operational abilities and determination to win wars."
However, Bennett backtracked from his remarks ripping into Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu on Thursday. "I used the wrong word against Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. Just like I expect the rabbis to respect the IDF, I myself must respect the rabbis" Bennett told Arutz Sheva.
"We, Religious Zionists, cannot attack the army en masse," he said. "We are 'the flesh of its flesh' (a quote from Genesis 2:23), and we cannot attack the army. We must talk to each other, and we are having significant discussions with the IDF and must continue to do so."
According to Bennett, the IDF made significant changes in the past year in every area of importance to Religious Zionists. These changes included allowing religious commanders placed in coed units to have their placement re-examined before they begin their roles.
"Religious Zionism must not throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said. "We must not give the younger generation a lack of faith in its commanders."