Israeli General Wants Rabbis Out of Army Oath-taking Ceremony

Brig. Gen. Paz-Tzuk, IDF's chief education officer, says rite is not a religious one, so no need for rabbis.

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Female soldiers at an Israeli army swearing-in ceremony.
Female soldiers at an Israeli army swearing-in ceremony. Credit: Emil Salman

The Israel Defense Forces’ chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk, has proposed that rabbis not take part in IDF oath-taking ceremonies. In a letter Paz-Tzuk sent to his commander, he maintained that “the ceremony is not a religious ceremony and there is no reason for it to look that way.”

Today most oath-taking ceremonies are conducted by the commanders of the basic training units involved, along with the military rabbis assigned to the units.

Paz-Tzuk wrote to the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen.  Hagai Topolanski, that it was unfitting for the main figures in the ceremony, alongside the unit commander, are the rabbis of the unit and the corps. “There is no reason that a rabbi should be the one to speak at the ceremony swearing [loyalty] to the IDF and the state,” he wrote.

Paz-Tzuk recommended that the role of the corps rabbi in the ceremony be canceled; and that sections from the Bible be read by officers and soldiers; and that the unit commander take the central role in conducting the ceremony, without being accompanied by the unit rabbi. Paz-Tzuk noted at the beginning of the letter that he had received numerous complaints by commanders over the “centrality of the military rabbis in the ceremony.”

The Military Rabbinate and Education Corps have been battling for years over the responsibility for educational programs for IDF soldiers. In an attempt to reduce these tensions, a document regulating the relations between the two bodies was formulated in 2009, then revised two years later. The document states that the Education Corps is responsible for educational plans and programs within the IDF and will address matters including Israeli Jewish identity; while the rabbinate will focus on “Jewish awareness.”

The most recent division of authority, drawn up in 2013 and approved by then-chief of staff Benny Gantz, separates “Jewish identity,” for which the Education Corps will be responsible, and “Jewish awareness,” which remains the responsibility of the rabbinate.

“The area of Jewish identity, which is the responsibility of the Education Corps, touches on the national tradition of the Jewish people, military tradition, the modern Zionist dialogue, pluralism, the remembrance of the Holocaust, and other relevant matters. The area of Jewish awareness, which is the responsibility of the Military Rabbinate, deals with connecting IDF soldiers to their Jewish roots and the Jewish tradition,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said at the time.

A report released by the IDF’s internal comptroller’s unit in 2013 stated, “There is a crisis of trust between the senior [officers] of the Education and Youth Corps and the senior [officers] of the Military Rabbinate.” The Education Corps expressed fears that the status quo on matters of state and religion was being changed, claiming the Rabbinate exceeded its authority with military rabbis giving educational training and other activities in violation of regulations – a claim the army comptroller’s report supported. The report stated that the two bodies must keep strictly to the regulations demarcating the line between their functions.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office said, “Over the years the order on ‘swearing-in ceremonies for new recruits’ has been changed a number of times, and the IDF is now examining the recommendations of its professional staff.  Within this framework, the character of the ceremony is being reexamined with an emphasis on defining the range of actions of the commander and the compulsory regulations in the order, while preserving the character of the IDF as an official state [institution] in which people with different beliefs serve.”

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