When Rabbis Start Educating the Soldiers

The Israeli Military Rabbinate's Growing Footprint

Amid Conflict: A soldier prays on his tank during a military exercise near the Israeli town of Katzrin, in the Golan Heights.
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Amid Conflict: A soldier prays on his tank during a military exercise near the Israeli town of Katzrin, in the Golan Heights.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 22, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.

As Israel approaches an August 1 court deadline to scale back army exemptions for yeshiva students, the government’s top watchdog is warning of an emerging problem that confronts the army from the opposite direction. It seems the senior command is increasingly concerned about growing Orthodox rabbinic influence within the ranks.

According to the annual report of the State Comptroller General, released May 1, the Military Rabbinate — essentially the chaplaincy corps of the Israel Defense Forces — has been steadily expanding its activities in recent years beyond its core role of providing ritual services. Increasingly, the rabbinate has been entering areas formally assigned to the army’s Education Corps, including morale building, citizenship, mission clarification and values education.

If this sounds confusing — is the army too Orthodox or not Orthodox enough? — that’s because we’re discussing two different varieties of Orthodoxy. Army exemptions refer to the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, known for its black-and-white garb and suspicion of Zionism. The Military Rabbinate, by contrast, is associated with the Religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox community, known for its knitted skullcaps and close ties to the settler movement. As the brass sees it, one isn’t nationalist enough, while the other is too nationalist. Both are covered separately in the sprawling, 1,750-page comptroller’s report, though Haredi enlistment has gotten most public attention.

Education Corps officers have complained to their superiors several times in recent years about rabbinic encroachment, but to little avail, the report says. Atop the command chain, the army’s deputy chief of staff and chief of personnel have studiously avoided taking sides. Whether because they dismiss the dispute as a petty turf battle or because they’re reluctant to confront the Orthodox lobby, they’ve ordered the squabbling units to work things out by themselves. After one blowup in 2009, a general appointed to mediate reported back that sides were divided by deep “ideological” differences that could only be resolved at the General Staff level. The senior command, however, has yet to address the issue, the comptroller reported.

The dispute reached a boiling point in January 2009, when the chief education officer complained directly to the army chief of staff about rabbinic behavior during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week incursion into Gaza. According to the education chief, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, combat troops were receiving pamphlets and lectures “of a political nature” from military rabbis and various “unauthorized lecturers” who circulated freely among front-line units.

The chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, responded within days by summoning IDF chief rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki to his office, along with personnel chief Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir. Ashkenazi warned Rontzki that activities like those the rabbinate was conducting undermined discipline, contravened army policy and “directly harmed the military.” Zamir was ordered to investigate further and return with conclusions. When Zamir met with Rontzki in February, however, he merely thanked him for his contribution to morale and urged him to avoid activities that “confuse” matters.



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