The Israeli army officially inaugurated its new chief rabbi at the beginning of this month – but not before he issued a sworn statement apologizing for past religious rulings that have been roundly criticized as sexist.
Eyal Krim, who has served as the army’s second-highest-ranking religious official for the last four years, was elevated to the rank of brigadier general after Israel’s high court ruled that the appointment could be allowed.
Krim was to have taken up his post a week previous, but his inauguration was delayed by the court. The order to delay was made after parliamentarians from Meretz, a left-leaning Zionist party, petitioned the high court against his appointment. The petition focused on how Krim had sanctioned the rape of non-Jewish women by Jewish soldiers in 2002.
“Every rabbi, educator or public figure is required to have the ability to retract and to admit a mistake. I do not hesitate to say I erred,” Krim wrote in his affidavit.
Krim made the controversial religious rulings when he was a civilian, publishing them on Kipa.co.il, a Hebrew-language web forum popular with Orthodox Jews.
Yair Ettinger, religion reporter for Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, wrote recently that although he was not in active service at the time, “Krim became in civilian clothes the leading address to turn to for religious soldiers, especially ones in combat units, with questions and dilemmas regarding halakha, or Jewish religious law. His popularity among religious soldiers overshadowed that of the rabbis of the military rabbinate and annoyed them very much.”
Krim’s most misogynistic ruling was in response to the following question by an anonymous man: “Is it allowed nowadays for an IDF [Israeli army] soldier, for example, to rape girls during battle, or is such a thing forbidden?”
In response, Krim ruled: “Even though fraternizing with a gentile woman is a very serious matter, it was permitted during wartime … the Torah permitted the individual to satisfy the evil urge.”
In the days that followed the November court decision to delay Krim’s appointment, many of Israel’s political and religious leaders issued statements of support for Krim, urging him not to retract his earlier religious rulings. Hundreds of rabbis on the government payroll publicly expressed their support for Krim, including more than 150 military rabbis and Israel’s national chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Even Tzohar, a group of ostensibly liberal Orthodox rabbis, spoke out in Krim’s defense, as did several ministers, including justice minister Ayelet Shaked and religious services minister David Azoulay.
Last month, Haaretz reported that sexual harassment complaints in the military nearly doubled between 2010 and 2015.
Ironically, the army official to sound the alarm over the steady increase in sex crime complaints, its head of human resources, Major General Hagai Topolanski, is also the very official to have approved Krim for the position of chief rabbi, despite his previously reported comments about raping non-Jewish women.
In recent days, it has emerged that a retired Israeli army brigadier general charged with 16 sex crimes, including three counts of rape, would likely receive a suspended sentence and avoid any prison time. The officer, Ofek Buchris, is expected to draw his entire pension, since he resigned from the army immediately after the rape indictments and before his guilt was established.
Israel’s aversion to aggressively prosecuting soldiers for rape also extends to crimes committed before they are inducted into the army.
In August, the news website Walla reported that a 24-year-old man who had just been charged with rape, had also been charged with attempted rape four years earlier.
In that 2012 incident, however, the presiding judge chose not to jail him for the crime, instead putting him on probation and only fining him the equivalent of $1,300, so that his police record would not be tarred by a felony conviction, as this could have torpedoed his then-impending army enlistment.
Many more disturbing cases of sex crimes, and institutional efforts to downplay them, have come to the fore in Israel over the past few months.
On 4 December, a retired Israeli judge confessed to sexually harassing a female employee. Yitzhak Cohen, who served as the president of a Nazareth district court, is likely to duck a criminal conviction, and receive only a light sentence of community service and a $650 fine.
In September, Nissim Mor was convicted on charges of sexual harassment, committed while he was Israel’s deputy police chief. Although the former top cop has confessed to the crimes, his punishment may amount to only a few months of community service, and the presiding judge may yet decide to annul the guilty conviction altogether, according to Haaretz.
Mor’s abuse of his police powers to commit sex attacks on a woman who had come to him asking for aid would seem to be symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. In August, Walla reported on a perceptible pattern of women approaching the Israeli police to complain about crimes, including sexual harassment, and being in turn sexually harassed by those very policemen.
Since he was sworn in as Israel’s police chief a year ago, Roni Alsheikh has done little to assuage concerns that the force does not take sex crimes seriously. A report released last month revealed that 87 percent of alleged sex crimes are not prosecuted by the police.
At an event marking International Women’s Day in March, Alsheikh announced that the police would no longer investigate anonymous allegations of sex crimes.
The announcement was made even though Israeli law compels all employers to investigate any suspicion of sex crimes, even if the allegations are made anonymously. Alsheikh had previously said that he regarded allegations made anonymously to be as bad as sexual harassment itself.
In August, Haaretz reported that Alsheikh and his direct boss, public security minister Gilad Erdan, had ordered police spokespersons to refrain from speaking to the media about rape and other sex crimes in order to improve the public image of the force. Instead, they were instructed to focus media attention on crimes allegedly committed by Palestinians – both those who have, and those who do not have, Israeli citizenship.
The following month, Haaretz reported that Alsheikh formed a committee to consider setting up a legal aid fund for police officers accused of sex crimes and other infractions.
Outside of the army, rape culture continues to plague Israeli society.
Last month, it emerged that Israel’s biggest bank, Bank Hapoalim, paid $1.6 million to an employee who accused the bank’s CEO, Zion Kenan, of sexually assaulting her. Hapoalim is currently under investigation by the Bank of Israel for not reporting the incident.
Also last month, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev decided not to suspend or levy any fine against David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences, for sexually harassing a female student in his department. The university tried to prevent news of the decision from reaching the public.
In the past few days, a court convicted David Yosef of 11 sex crimes, including indecent acts, sexual harassment and sexual assault, all committed while he served as mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb of Or Yehuda. During Israel’s large-scale attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014, the Or Yehuda municipality hung a large banner in public urging Israeli soldiers to strike Palestinians forcefully, using a Hebrew-language double entendre that alluded to raping Palestinian mothers. Yosef was mayor at the time.
A popular religious leader accused of raping and sexually assaulting women and minors was convicted of lesser crimes recently. Eliezer Berland, the rabbi in question, was sentenced to just a year and a half in jail and a $6,500 fine. When Berland was first arraigned in July, after evading arrest for three years, a thousand of his followers protested outside the Israeli court, holding signs bearing the slogan: “The people are with the saint.”
Of late, there has been a string of sex crime allegations against lawmakers from Israel’s national religious camp and its political party, the far-right Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home).
In September, it emerged that Davidi Perl, the regional council chair of a cluster of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, agreed to pay a large sum of money (reportedly more than $50,000) to a young woman who accused him of sexual assault. The council voted to retain Perl as its chair. Perl resigned two week later for, in his words, the “good of my family.”
An unnamed elected representative with Habayit Hayehudi has been accused by a party member of numerous sex attacks.
Meanwhile, Yinon Magal, a former Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker who resigned from Israel’s parliament a year ago after numerous women accused him of sex crimes, was hired by Israel Channel 10 last month to co-host a popular late-night television show.
Natasha Roth, a blogger with +972 Magazine, observed that Magal’s fate contrasted with that of Billy Bush.
Bush, a cousin of George W. Bush, the former US president, was ousted in October from his job as host of the NBC television show Today after a video of him entertaining Donald Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women was made public during the US presidential election campaign.
While Trump’s misogynistic comments were widely condemned, Tzvika Brot, his election campaign manager in Israel, tried to whitewash his violent sexism. Brot noted – somewhat ironically in light of the controversy surrounding Krim’s appointment – that Trump “isn’t running for chief rabbi.”
Prime minister’s office
Israel’s highest political office also appears to be no safe space for women.
In April, David Keyes, spokesperson to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2013.
In a separate case, last month, after a woman working in the prime minister’s office complained to her direct boss that another office employee had sexually harassed her, the boss fired her on the spot.
Netanyahu’s close friend and former chief of staff, diplomat Gil Sheffer, was this month placed under house arrest after a woman accused him of confining and sexually assaulting her. Sheffer has faced similar accusations from other women in the recent past.
Another previous chief of staff to Netanyahu, Natan Eshel, also quit his post after a colleague accused him of sex crimes.
In September, Netanyahu’s former chauffeur, Ilan Shmuel, was convicted of raping six girls between the ages of nine and 16 over the course of a decade.
When the head of Israel’s government fails to adequately protect women from sex criminals even in his own inner circle, it is sad but not surprising when Israeli children, even pre-pubescent ones, fall victim to sexual predators, such as in the Shmuel case.
That liberal Zionist lawmakers successfully forced the army’s chief rabbi to express contrition for his past sanctioning of rape can be counted as a narrow victory for feminist activists. But Krim’s elevation to such a powerful post to begin with, and the strong support he continues to receive from Israeli leaders, are testaments to the power of patriarchy in Israeli society.