Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Groups Dominate Israeli Army's Educational Programs

‘The IDF has abandoned education in the army to organizations with a clear agenda,’ one critic says.

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Ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Knesset will have to decide on their compulsory induction into the IDF.
Ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Knesset will have to decide on their compulsory induction into the IDF. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Most of the Israel Defense Forces’ weekend religious programs for commanders are run by Orthodox Jewish organizations, according to IDF documents obtained by Haaretz.

The programs are designed to “teach commanders the deeper meanings of their Jewish-Israeli identities and provide them with ethics and lessons that will help them command,” one document reads.

But some organizations running the programs are linked to the Hasidic movement Chabad, while another group, Ir David, is run by the right-wing NGO Elad, according to Education Corps documents summing up 2014.

“The IDF has abandoned education in the army to organizations with a clear agenda,” said a source familiar with the situation. “This is distorted as far as education is concerned and dangerous to the discourse on Jewish and Israeli identity.”

The IDF spokesman declined to provide details on any religious organizations cooperating with the military. According to the documents, one such weekend was held in Jerusalem in November for company commanders.

The program initially included a lecture by a Reform woman rabbi “as part of a pluralistic approach that reflects a variety of identities,” says one document. But “the institute canceled the lecture because it did not conform with its worldview.”

Also, on a tour of the Old City that weekend, “offensive remarks were made about Islam. A Muslim-Bedouin officer was insulted and left the tour in the middle.”

The incident was investigated but the summary of the inquiry does not say if any measures were taken against the organization. It merely recommends “a pluralistic approach that promotes a unifying, inoffensive discussion.”

The IDF declined to say what institute had organized that weekend’s program but said the group would no longer work with the military until “the outline of the activity was redefined.”

The religious NGO Ascent organized 36 of the 183 weekend activities held last year. The Ascent center in Safed, which was opened in 1983 by Chabad, deals mainly with kabbala and Jewish mysticism.

The center’s site says that since 2005 the IDF has sent “hundreds of soldiers every week for ‘tradition Sabbaths’ and study days in which the soldiers are exposed to their ancestral’ roots.”

A few years ago, Education Corps officers harshly criticized the cooperation with Ascent. They said soldiers had complained that the program centered around religious and missionary coercion.

The IDF spokesman rejected the criticism, claiming that the Education Corps supervises the activities.

Orthodox groups that held such weekend religious programs included the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (29 events), the Darchei Avot academy in Jerusalem (23 events), Todah L’Tzahal (19 events), the Golan Seminary Haspin (12 events) and the Chabad-linked Or Lachayal (eight events).

Ir David held 21 weekend programs. “We were not told that this is the same organization that is acting to make Ir David a Jewish place,” an IDF officer told Haaretz three years ago, referring to a history program.

Three groups identified with a pluralistic attitude to Judaism — the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, Shitim and Alma — held 20 weekends. The Ben-Gurion Research Institute held 15.

A source who until recently served in the Education Corps says the Orthodox control of the weekend programs largely stems from the funding.

“The the IDF insists that the organizations that want to work with it find their own donors,” he said. “This is why most of the activities are run by Orthodox groups, some of them bordering on missionary work.”

According to another source, “It’s troubling that the IDF is willing to pay for tanks and food, but when it comes to education it’s all based on contributions . Does anyone really believe Ir David’s activities aren’t ideological?”

The IDF spokesman said the civilian groups authorized to provide educational programs are “subject to a uniform contract and pricing set by the Defense Ministry. Three institutes provide activities free of charge. We are acting to tighten supervision over these activities.”

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