Meet the Israeli army’s misogynist chief rabbi

Eyal Karim (Handout/Reuters)

The rabbi newly appointed to the Israeli army’s top religious post has made a long list of racist and misogynist edicts over the years, including one permitting Jewish soldiers to rape non-Jewish women during wartime.

The elevation of Colonel Eyal Karim to the rank of brigadier general and the position of chief rabbi was thrown into question after his past controversial statements were reported by Israeli media. After holding a private meeting with Karim, however, Israel’s chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot publicly proclaimed that he would support the appointment.

Once he is military chief rabbi, Karim will be responsible for making decisions with regards to religious matters in the armed forces. Karim currently serves as the second-highest ranking religious official in the Israeli army. His nomination to the top post has received the support of the State of Israel’s two chief rabbis and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Comments Karim made in 2003 when he was a civilian resurfaced after his appointment. In a column called “Ask the Rabbi” at Kipa.co.il, a popular Hebrew-language website catering to religious Jews, Karim responded to a number of anonymous letters inquiring about specificities of Jewish religious law, including a question about rape in times of war.

“Is it allowed nowadays for an IDF [Israeli army] soldier, for example, to rape girls during battle, or is such a thing forbidden?” Karim was asked. He answered: “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.”

Karim’s comments first attracted notice in 2012, when dissident Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz first published them in English at +972 Magazine. Gurvitz says that when he asked the military to comment on Karim’s statements, he was rebuked by an army spokesperson and told that his query “disrespects the IDF, the State of Israel and the Jewish religion.”

Public retraction

The day after Gurvitz’ article appeared on +972, Karim published a letter at Kipa, reported by Gurvitz, attempting to walk back his 2003 religious ruling sanctioning rape: “It is clear that in our times … this ruling is certainly not to be acted on.”

The military seemed to be satisfied with Karim’s disavowal of his previous edict; he continued to serve as the army’s second-highest religious official for the next four years. But the announcement that he was to be promoted to army chief rabbi elicited another round of outrage, as well as a more thorough examination of his previously published opinions.

In his Kipa column, Karim has promoted burning Christian bibles, killing wounded “terrorists” and torturing captives, stating: “Terrorists should not be treated as human beings, because they are animals.”

In one of his responses, Karim called for the transformation of the state into a Jewish monarchy and a genocide against the people of “Amalek.” The Amalek people mentioned in the Torah are not known to have any modern-day descendants, but some rabbis attribute their bloodline to Israel’s current enemies, dooming them to a divinely commanded death sentence.

Karim also ruled that the court testimony of females cannot be relied upon, because of their supposedly “sentimental” nature. He also ruled that Jewish men in the Israeli army may not serve under the command of a woman, as this would require them to gaze upon her.

Karim’s tenure as the second-highest-ranking religious official in the military did not pass without controversy.

In 2013, he produced a booklet for Israeli soldiers which effectively asserts that Jewish supremacy was divinely ordained and that this would always overrule the laws of democracy. The booklet states: “The concept that non-Jews have equal rights with Jews in Israel goes against the opinion of the Torah, and the state’s representatives have no authority to act against the Torah’s will.” The army later apologized for the book’s contents.

When Karim’s impending appointment was made public this month and the rabbi began to draw renewed criticism for his past comments, his detractors were again accused of “anti-Semitism” — and even of fabricating a “blood libel” — in an op-ed by columnist Dror Eydar in Israel Hayom, the highest-circulation newspaper in the country.

Threats of rape as instrument of oppression

Karim’s defenders insist that his comments on rape were misunderstood and that he couldn’t possibly have permitted sexual assaults against Palestinian women. But threats of rape have been wielded by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinians.

In June 2014, Bar-Ilan University professor Mordechai Kedar publicly suggested that Israeli forces dissuade Palestinians from taking up arms by threatening the rape of their female relatives. The military seems to have quickly adopted Kedar’s doctrine; Palestinians taken captive that same summer during Isreal’s assault on Gaza say they were threatened with the rape of their wives.

Earlier this year, a lawyer representing Palestinian journalist Muhammad al-Qiq said that while Israel detained al-Qiq for months without charge, his captors threatened to rape him, his wife and their children unless he confessed to crimes. Al-Qiq was only released after refusing food for 94 days.

Actual sexual assaults of Palestinian men, women and children by Israeli soldiers are not unheard of. During the early years of the state, soldier sex attacks on Palestinians were common enough that they were a source of consternation for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. At a government meeting in 1951, speaking about army attacks on Palestinians, he declared, “I know some of the crimes, and I must say the situation is frightening in two areas: acts of murder and acts of rape.”

In recent years, Amira Hass, correspondent for the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, and the Israeli investigative journalist who goes by the pseudonym Eishton have reported on incidents in which Israeli soldiers allegedly raped and sexually assaulted Palestinian females. And testimonies obtained by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel show that Palestinian men and boys held in Israeli custody have also been subjected to sexual threats and sexual abuse.

Sexual violence common

Recent high-profile cases reveal the pervasiveness of rape culture in Israel.

In April, an Israeli investigative news program revealed that the late Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi was a serial rapist and sexual predator during his decorated army service, in which he reached the rank of general.

Last week, a currently serving brigadier general who had been slated for promotion was indicted for rape and sexual assault against multiple female soldiers. The following day, his former commander told Israeli army radio that the accused rapist is a “hero” and cited the Torah in defense of his alleged actions.

Admittedly, the Israeli army is taking steps to stem the rate of sex assaults, or at least those occurring within its ranks. Until just four months ago, victims of sex attacks in the army would have to shell out for their own legal costs, while alleged attackers would have all their legal fees paid for. Under a new policy, the army will pay the legal fees of both accused and accuser.

In February, the army chief’s advisor on women’s affairs sent a letter to all Israeli soldiers calling upon them to stop printing out regalia that includes images and messages that objectify women and make light of rape.

The army also makes mandatory for all incoming draftees an instructional workshop on the topic of sexual assault. However, after ultra-Orthodox soldiers angrily objected to the sexual content of the workshop, the army buckled and granted exemptions to religious troops.

Meanwhile, Israel’s police force in recent years has seen a massive epidemic of sex crime allegations against top cops. In May, the Times of Israel reported:

“The past few years have seen a string of sexual misconduct cases involving top police officers, many of whom were forced to retire due to the allegations against them. In all, about half of the Israel Police’s major generals — the highest rank below that of the police commissioner — have been accused of such abuse, and many of them have stepped down.”

In 2013, after Nisso Shaham, the Jerusalem chief of police, was indicted for sexual harassment against several women, mainly subordinates, he protested that it was unfair to try him for these crimes. He argued that his behaviors were “in keeping with the conventional norms accepted by the police” and that they were “routine and common”.

Instead of combatting sexism in the police force, the top brass seems to be trying to sweep the problem of misogyny under the rug.

Roni Alsheikh, national police commissioner and former deputy head of Israel’s domestic spy agency the Shin Bet, recently reinstated a top police commander accused of sexual harassment and planned to promote another commander found guilty of harassment (that officer declined the appointment after Alsheikh’s announcement provoked outcry). Alsheikh also announced — on International Women’s Day, no less — that the force would no longer investigate allegations of sex crimes, unless accusers were willing to reveal their identities.

Rape culture

Rape culture is perpetuated by the country’s political class. Dozens of demonstrators recently gathered in Tel Aviv to protest plans to grant early release to Moshe Katsav, the former Israeli president currently serving a seven-year sentence after being convicted of two counts of rape and other offenses. Katsav has often smeared his victims in the press, and has yet to either admit his guilt or express remorse for his actions.

The case of another politician from Kiryat Malachi, Katsav’s hometown, provides sobering evidence of the nearly free pass that rapists are often accorded in Israeli society. After mayor Motti Malka was charged with multiple rapes, along with his son, his deputy mayor and four other men, he reached a plea deal with police that saw him serve no jail time at all.

In the end, Malka was not even forced to pay a monetary fine because the Kiryat Malachi city council had previously purchased a policy for “sexual harassment insurance.” Just weeks later, the council invited Malka to attend the city’s official celebration of International Women’s Day.

The army is hardly the only sector of Israeli society from which sexual assaults emanate. But rape culture in the military is especially disconcerting, as its soldiers have access to deadly weapons and the license to use them. And now its chief rabbi is a man who once gave Jewish soldiers sanction to rape Palestinian women until he was shamed into retracting it.

David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker.

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