Rontzki's pearls make army's top brass squirm
Another pearl from Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, another slip of the tongue, another little public storm? We've already seen the reruns several times, with the predictable outcome: The newspaper prints the story, the chief military rabbi denies it and the top brass squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, checking to see when the incendiary rabbi's tour of duty ends.
But this latest round has a particularly worrisome aspect.
Yesterday Haaretz published statements Rontzki made last week in a lecture at a hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with military service) in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron.
He quoted Maimonides on the laws of war, providing his own interpretation that "in times of war, whoever doesn't fight with all his heart and soul is damned - if he keeps his sword from bloodshed, if he shows mercy toward his enemy when no mercy should be shown."
From here, the rabbi quickly applied things to our own times. In Operation Cast Lead, the Israel Defense Forces troops "fought with all their heart and soul" because "the people of Israel has united recently around the simple understanding of how it must fight."
The Haaretz report was quoted on Army Radio, and Rontzki quickly went on the air to deny it. All he did, he said, was quote from Maimonides. What Rontzki had not counted on was that his statements would be recorded and even posted on the yeshiva's Web site.
This is not the first time Rontzki has accused the media of publishing lies. A few months ago, he said in a lecture to Orthodox soldiers that a priori, women should not serve in the army. Then, too, Rontzki denied the remarks, although Haaretz has spoken to at least four people who attended the lecture and heard him, word for word.
The extent of credibility the senior command ascribes to these denials can be seen in the fact that in the case of the latest storm around the rabbi, the IDF spokesman's office has been in no hurry to fight for the army's good name.
Rontzki is the one who goes on the air to defend his positions, as if someone in the spokesman's office had said to himself: "Under the circumstances, let the good rabbi manage on his own."
The claim that the remarks were taken out of context has become a cliche that public figures use when confronted by the media. Sometimes, of course, that argument is true.
Other times, it is an attempt at damage control after the embarrassing statements have already slipped out.
In Rontzki's case, all one has to do is listen; the context is clear and the attempt to disown the statements is clumsy.
Rontzki has already said on more than one occasion that he does not see himself as a "quartermaster of religion." In his own eyes, he is a priest anointed from on high, leading warriors into battle and strengthening them with words of Torah. That is the understanding that leads him to show up faithfully at every battalion exercise.
But the pearls emerging from his lips have already put him in competition with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, though without the Shas spiritual leader's religious authority.
The defense minister and chief of staff know this well. They apparently prefer to wait until Rontzki's term is up, hoping he will not use the time he has left to create even bigger scandals.
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