Religious soldiers praying on Masada  - Alex Levac
Religious soldiers praying on Masada. Photo by Alex Levac
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The 19 reservist major generals who signed the letter to Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on Monday, warning of extremist religious trends in the Israel Defense Forces, "were in the army long ago," Rabbi Avichai Rontzki declared this week. Brig. Gen. (res. ) Rontzki, who was chief army rabbi until a year and a half ago, claimed that the veteran officers don't know what the IDF is like anymore. "Things are different nowadays," he explained.

The signatories, who were prompted to protest by events - such as male soldiers boycotting official ceremonies where women were singing, and the ousting of female staff officers from combat units - are indeed detached from the reality of being in the army today. Much has changed since people like Ori Orr, Menachem Einan and Yeshayahu Gavish were among the top brass.

Orr says he never encountered religious soldiers boycotting events featuring female singers. He certainly never imagined stories such as these, culled randomly from the media this week: about the IDF gradually adopting stricter (kasher lemehadrin ) dietary standards (from the army's weekly Bamahane ); about Rabbi Eli Sadan, head of the pre-military academy in Eli, lecturing about the "dedication and courage" of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (Yedioth Ahronoth ); and about the IDF Education Corps' directive that soldiers not attend the annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin (Haaretz ).

When it comes to relations between religious and secular soldiers, it seems that indeed, this is no longer the army we used to know. As if we blinked and the army changed.

The IDF's policy with respect to kosher food, drafted by the first IDF rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Goren in the 1950s, was based on the lowest common denominator that could be found between religious and secular soldiers: Each side sacrificed something, but the army's dining halls were open to all. Yet now this situation isn't good enough for the IDF's 3,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers, and a growing group of Haredi-Zionist soldiers won't accept it either. The army's rabbinate is currently leaning toward accepting these ultra-Orthodox soldiers' demands and toughening kashrut rules, which will require larger budgets.

Of course, the growing number of religious soldiers and officers forces the army to make adjustments; now it has to face an array of issues that did not have to be addressed in the past. Yet some of these changes, particularly those involving women, stem from power struggles between rabbis not affiliated with the army, who compete to make stricter demands of their students in uniform.

November 2011 data from the IDF Manpower Directorate, compiled yesterday, shows that the national-religious school system sends more graduates to combat units than any other educational system. National-religious graduates make up an even larger percentage of combat officers. At time when many secular youths, including those who choose combat units, are content to serve their mandatory three years before returning to civilian life, religious soldiers are being educated to stay in uniform beyond the minimum. Thus, 42 percent of cadets in the most recent infantry officer training course were religious (nine cadets in this course stood trial for boycotting the contentious ceremony with women singers ).

Rabbi Sadan's influence on these soldiers is considerable; some say he has the impact and stature of a major general. In 1988, Sadan established the religious pre-army academy Bnei David in the settlement of Eli - today the country's largest and most important such institution, many of whose graduates go on to command battalions.

Sadan's lecture on Rabin memorial day makes for troubling reading (the text appears in full on the academy's website ). Rabin, Sadan claimed, was "the biggest leadership and political failure in Israel's history." He left no legacy, the rabbi added, and the whole personality cult that has sprung up around him is misbegotten. After the obligatory denunciation of the assassination, Sadan said he is "amazed by the dedication and courage" of Rabin's assassin, Amir, and of "the extraordinary heroism" of Goldstein, who knew he would die after his shooting massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The damage they caused "will take generations to repair," he added.

Kahane lives

It seems that declarations by the late radical Rabbi Meir Kahane's students a decade ago are now part of the religious mainstream. Some of its leaders are now taking off their masks: For example, Sadan, who for years preached patriotism to the state, and adamantly opposed violating orders, has taken up a fiery manner of expression that he avoided in the past (he says the quotations regarding Rabin were taken out of the lesson's broader context ).

"An ill wind has been blowing through our public," said a senior religious officer this week. Another officer expressed consternation that nobody denounced Sadan's remarks. The truth, however, is that there is little chance that anyone in the IDF General Staff would dare to take on Sadan, whose academy produces outstanding officers.

"The army is capitulating to the religious, and that started before the withdrawal from Gaza," stated a third officer. "The [disengagement's] blow to the religious public was quickly compensated by rabbis' gains on day-to-day matters. The officers were told that this is a very sensitive time, and it's not prudent to argue with rabbis. Somehow, only one side has shown flexibility over the past several years."

For example, why does the IDF allow Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh Yeshiva - who calls on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements - to spend Sabbaths with hesder students (who serve in a combined religious study-army framework ) on Givati infantry bases?

Meanwhile, the army is imposing controversial and dubious restrictions upon its soldiers. One was the Education Corp's sweeping ban on soldiers from taking part in the annual memorial service for Rabin. The IDF called the rally, which was not sponsored by a state body, a political event. This is the same Educational Corps that was defeated in recent years in its power struggles vis-a-vis the chief rabbinate of the army, spearheaded by Rontzki.

A strongly worded report compiled by the State Comptroller's Office, slated for release in April, will discuss problems related to the power of the IDF rabbinate vis-a-vis the Education Corps in full. When the draft report was passed on to the various units the comptroller had examined, claims immediately arose that he had a vendetta against the rabbinate (as has become nearly routine, these claims were accompanied by hints of a complex conspiracy led by Haaretz ).

Anyone who believed these issues would disappear after Rontzki left the army was mistaken. His successor as IDF chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, has a reputation in the General Staff as a moderate and a compromiser. Yet Peretz is being forced to bow in some cases to civilian rabbis, including Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who has shown sudden vigilance on religious matters in the IDF and demanded that religious soldiers boycott events with women singers.

Despite the pressures on it, a committee appointed by Gantz and headed by Manpower Directorate commander Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, is expected to conclude that the army's standing orders should remain in effect: Soldiers cannot leave official ceremonies even if women are singing there. With regard to other kinds of events, commanders are expected to use discretion.

Speaking before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday, Gantz expressed himself strongly: "I am worried about Iran and Syria, but also by the matter of the army and society ... the chief rabbis told me they do not stand up and leave when a woman sings at a state ceremony. There is no ban on women singing in the IDF, and commanders' supreme authority on this issue cannot be undermined."

Prof. Yedidia Stern, a religious man who is a lawyer and also vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told Haaretz that, "what is needed is a multi-faceted policy of setting limits while allowing commanders to be flexible. The army needs to set red lines that cannot be transgressed. Religion is imperialist by nature. It has tremendous energy, but it retreats when facing a resolute policy. On the other hand, the carrot needs to be used along with the stick: After setting limits, the army should go the extra mile on behalf of religious soldiers, and allow prudent officers the freedom to deal with specific issues."