Israel’s ministry of religious services, headed by economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, has created a new Jewish Identity Administration in an “effort to increase national awareness of Jewish identity,” says a report in Yeshiva World News. Haaretz says its job is to “instill Jewish values” in the general public. The administration will be headed by reserve Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. Rontzki is stepping down as head of the yeshiva of Itamar, a settlement overlooking Nablus in Samaria-northern West Bank.
The new administration, authorized as part of the Jewish Home-Likud Beiteinu coalition agreement, will be modeled after the Jewish Awareness Unit created by Rontzki within the military chief rabbinate. Rontzki was picked for the job not only because of his political closeness to Bennett—Rontzki “helped him considerably during his party primary race,” says the religious news site Kipa—“but also because of his professional background, as someone who advanced the values of Jewish identity in the IDF during his service as military chief rabbi.”
Haaretz reacted to the news in an editorial yesterday accusing Bennett and Rontzki of trying to “force” religion on Israelis, who “don’t have an identity crisis” and “certainly don’t need Bennett and Rontzki to treat it for them.” Israel National News, the website of the settler radio station Arutz Sheva, replied with a quote from Rontzki that Haaretz’s criticism of the initiative “just shows how important it is.” Working mainly through the schools, Rontzki said, it will focus on dialogue between religious and secular youth and on deepening awareness of “the subject of the land of Israel” and the “central” importance of “our renewed settlement.”
Actually, that’s the point. Haaretz has the issue wrong: It’s not that Rontzki intends to coerce kids into praying, but rather that he’ll be using taxpayer shekels and class time to spread his ultra-nationalist notions of Israel and (or vs.) the world.
In fact, Rontzki and his military Jewish identity programs were the subject of a blistering report by Israel’s Comptroller General just a year ago, as I reported at the time. The accusations against him weren’t that he was trying to impose religious rules and rituals on soldiers, but that he was using the rabbinate, created to provide religious services to observant soldiers, as a vehicle to promote religious-nationalist, political values concerning the sacredness and indivisibility of the Land of Israel.
Specifically, Rontzki was accused of encroaching on the territory of the army’s Education Corps, created by David Ben-Gurion 60 years ago to instill essential Israeli values, including “democracy and the rule of law” and “universal moral principles based on the value and dignity of human life.” The comptroller’s report alluded to published news reports that Rontzki’s military rabbinate had organized lectures and distributed pamphlets to the troops calling on them to “show no mercy” to the enemy and to “ignore any foreign doctrines” that “confuse the logical way of fighting the enemy,” a reference to the official IDF code of ethics.
Cases were also cited of morale-building lectures in which rabbis reportedly told soldiers that they were fighting a holy war for promised land and that Jews were forbidden to surrender even an inch of territory.
Rontzki, interviewed by Arutz Sheva radio, dismissed Haaretz’s criticisms and went on to describe plans for his new Jewish Identity Administration that sound strikingly like the program for which the Comptroller slammed him a year ago:
Rabbi Ronsky was unconcerned by the Haaretz report of Hess’ criticism. “Haaretz is always opposed to anything involving Jewish national identity,” he told Arutz Sheva. “The connection between religion and nationality bothers them, they think Judaism should deal only with interpersonal relationships and the way people relate to themselves, and not with national issues,” he continued. The new Jewish Identity program will focus on informal education, he said. It will work with organizations such as youth movements, and will provide opportunities for study and for meetings between religious and secular Israelis. The primary national issue facing today’s Jewish generation is the subject of the land of Israel, he said. “The number of attacks from the nations of the world over our renewed settlement shows that this is the central thing to focus on,” he said. “They need to understand that this is not ‘a state of all its citizens,’ this is a Jewish state in the land of Israel.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).