Painting a distorted picture of the IDF

A BBC report leaves the impression that the IDF has been overrun by religious fanatics

By Alex Brummer, September 17, 2009

One of the most enduring and inspiring images in the history of modern Israel is that of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, dressed in IDF military uniform, sounding the shofar at the Kotel in Jerusalem on its liberation in 1967.

Goren was IDF chief rabbi from 1948 to 1972, giving lie to the idea that religion in Israel’s army is something which began with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January.

A report on BBC2’s Newsnight by Katya Adler on September 7 left the impression that the IDF had been overrun by religious extremists. “Military rabbis are becoming more powerful,” she reported. “Trained in warfare as well as religion, new army regulations now mean they are part of the military elite.”

The Newsnight film stated that the military rabbis rose to prominence during Israel’s invasion of Gaza earlier this year. A non-religious soldier who was interviewed told the BBC: “It felt like a religious war, like a crusade.”

The impression given by the film was that the make-up of Israel’s forces was changing dramatically with settlers from Orthodox seminaries on the West Bank dominating an army which used to comprise kibbutzniks.

Adler’s report was mainly a reheat of old material. Much of it was based around the allegations first made by Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers which has been critical of the IDF’s conduct in Gaza. The Independent reported on January 27 that the group had called for the sacking of Brig-Gen Avi Rontzki over the distribution of a booklet to troops comparing Palestinians to biblical Philistines.

Much of this was repeated in Adler’s report which included a quote from a critic, Lieutenant (Rabbi) Shmuel Kaufman, who said that his commander had told him to “blow the ram’s horn, like the biblical Joshua when he conquered the land of Israel”.

Fuller articles on the role of religion in the Israeli forces were published in mid-August by the Associated Press and the New York Times. Both referred to the Rontzki pamphlet. But Brig-Gen Rontzki was quoted as saying it had been passed out without his knowledge.

AP also noted that far from being something new, “rabbis have always been a visible component of military life, ministering to troops in the field, and officiating at soldiers’ funerals”.

A great irony of this debate about religion in the army is that, throughout much of Israel’s history, Orthodox groups have been criticised for an unwillingness to don uniform and defend the state. Now they are being criticised for being too influential.

Adler’s report sought to balance her charges of religious extremism by quoting the IDF’s chief education officer, Brig-Gen Eli Shermeister, as saying: “Only the commanders are in charge of the spirit of the soldiers.”

What is without doubt is that the Newsnight segment left the impression that Israeli troops were now fanatics, trussed up in tefillin and swaying to prayer inside Gaza homes.

The reality, as AP’s Matti Friedman pointed out, is that the Israeli army is made up of 175,000 troops including Muslim Arabs and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify as Christians. All these groups have their own clergy, although only Jewish chaplains are in uniform. Moreover, despite claims of a settler takeover of the military, three-quarters of Jewish troops are devoutly secular with only a handful of officers wearing a kippah.

TV is a medium where pictures, not data, count. Nevertheless, it is a pity that, by focusing so closely on the army extremists, Newsnight missed the broader picture, including the commitment by the IDF to be as moral an army as is possible in a war zone.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 2:23pm, September 17 2009