Religious battle rages over IDF

A behind-the-scenes struggle is going on in the IDF over the role of the military Rabbinate and the increasing number of soldiers asking the IDF to accommodate their religious needs.

The IDF Chief Rabbi, Brigadier General Avihai Rontzki, has angered many senior officers by what they see as undue intrusion of the military rabbis into the internal affairs of the army’s units.

Rabbi Rontzki has told his rabbis that they are there “not only to distribute wine and challahs for Shabbat” but to “bring yiddishkeit and a fighting spirit to the soldiers in the field”.

The Military Rabbinate’s Jewish Identity Unit conducts courses in which lecturers, both from within its ranks and civilians, talk to the soldiers about “Jewish fighting values” and the connection between their current operations and the wars of the Bible.

Many officers claim that these lectures amount to “religious coercion” and contain controversial political statements. During Operation Cast Lead the Military Rabbinate distributed leaflets among the soldiers which called for them to “have no mercy for the cruel enemy”.

Other senior officers, both religious and secular, support Rabbi Rontzki, a Yeshivah head from the settlement of Itamar and a former field officer.

He was appointed to his current post in the hope that he would help build bridges between the army and the religious settlers.

The IDF Education Corps was seen as being slow off the mark in the rivalry with the Rabbinate. But it has recently enlisted the Posen Foundation, which promotes secular and cultural Jewish education, to help it prepare special courses for soldiers.

Rabbi Rontzki caused more controversy two weeks ago when he told a group of female religious soldiers that, in his opinion, women should not enlist in the army and that all senior rabbis had ruled against their service.

Another constant source of tension has been the tzniut, modesty demands made by some religious soldiers.

There are more IDF soldiers than ever before who demand stricter standards of separation between the sexes but, at the same time, the army has been opening up many new roles for women in the combat units.
Last week, a group of religious reservists refused to participate in a tactical exercise in which all the jeep drivers were women.

The problem was solved when they were assured that no soldier who objected would have to sit on his own in a jeep with a woman, but these are almost daily occurrences.

Senior officers have recently criticised religious soldiers for leaving army events when women took to the stage to sing. Former Chief Rabbi Mordehai Eliyahu said this week that a soldier should sit in military prison rather than stay and hear a woman sing.

For the last 20 years, the number of religious soldiers among the IDF’s elite units and in-the-field command ranks has steadily risen.
Until the 1980s, a kippah-wearing officer who was not a military rabbi was a relatively rare sight.

But today, 30 per cent of the graduates of the prestigious Infantry Officers Course in recent years and many of the commanders of the leading battalions and brigades have been religious.

The IDF high command, battling low rates of motivation in other parts of Israeli society, recognises their contribution and has been anxious to defuse tension.

A main worry has been the rulings of several rabbis that evacuating settlements and outposts is against halachah and therefore such an order must be refused.

There were a few cases of religious soldiers refusing to carry out orders during the disengagement from Gaza, and since then in evacuations of West Bank outposts. But the IDF has succeeded in keeping these to a minimum, usually by allowing soldiers to carry out other tasks instead.

Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazy, anxious to keep his forces together, recently said that he hopes that in the next round of outpost evacuations, the government will decide to use the police rather than the army.

    Last updated: 2:52pm, July 22 2009