The Battlefield of the IDF’s Culture War: Jewish Identity

In annual report on Israeli security issues, State Comptroller takes Defense Ministry Director-General to task for overstepping authority on foreign arms deals worth billions.

The myth of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' canny use of the media is so powerful that it almost perpetuates itself. The issues discussed in the comptroller's periodic report are chosen up to two years in advance. And still, there's no doubt the comptroller has a flare for drama. Now, with perfect timing, as the issue of Haredi draftees (or lack thereof) in the Israel Defense Forces is presented as the main reason for elections to be moved up, Lindenstrauss devotes an entire chapter in the report looking into the service of those ultra-Orthodox men already in the army.

The report's point of view is different than that around which public discord seemed to center. The State Comptroller's Office is checking the way in which Haredi soldiers are assimilated into the IDF, and has reached the conclusion that the army has to institutionalize its treatment of the Haredi recruits. As long as it was a voluntary, individual process, one could think that it was the thought that counts.

Ofer Vaknin

It's important to enlist Haredi recruits as much as possible. The finer details of the agreements are less important. In the last two years, however, before the Supreme Court moved to strike down the Tal Law, the army succeeded in enlisting more than 1,000 Haredi men each year. Not just into the Nachal Haredi battalion, but to the Shachar technological tracks as well.The experiment succeeded.

Now, the comptroller thinks the IDF needs to let go of the umbilical cord, to let trustworthy officials take control of the entire project and work toward a full regulation of service, which includes, among other things, fulfilling the obligations given to the Haredi conscripts.

An important chapter of this year’s report concerns a culture war going on within the IDF, between the Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate over the issue of defining Israeli and Jewish identity.

The comptroller, in polite language, adopts many conclusions reached by investigations made by Haaretz three and four years ago. The report describes a chaotic situation, in which both entities are battling over the souls of the soldiers, without a higher authority declaring a winner. A vacuum has formed in the field of education, and the General Staff is reluctant to fill it, leaving it open for the Military Rabbinate. Steadfast rabbinate officials, full of motivation and armed with surplus resources are winning battle after battle against their battered, worn out Education Corps opponents.

The list of Organizations providing educational programming to the IDF illustrates that most of such programming is coming from one particular end of the spectrum.

The list includes religious organizations that are not exactly in line with Israeli centrists, such as “Ascent,” of Safed, which offers a “kabbalistic experience,” as well as right wing organizations, like the Jerusalem based “Ir David Foundation.”

The Education Corps admits that it is largely unable to oversee Shabbat educational programming provided by these organizations to IDF soldiers. In his report, Lindenstrauss also notes warnings from the IDF’s chief education officer, and the head of the personnel directorate, against harming the status quo of religion in the IDF, and the increasing influence of rabbis in the army, which threatens to “harm the model of ‘a people’s army.’” The comptroller, who does not express an opinion regarding which military body should be setting the standard for educational programming, instead calls for the Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister to create clear guidelines for educational programming within the IDF.

Nevertheless, the Defense Ministry is the target of most of the report’s criticism, largely because of two of the ministry’s activities, including defense industry export deals, and the issues surrounding equipping armored vehicles with defenses against anti-tank missiles. (Issues exposed by a Haaretz investigation last year, as well.)

The comptroller found a common denominator in different decisions made by the Ministry, specifically by the ministry’s Director-General, retired Maj. Gen. Udi Shani. The allegations against Shani are harsh. The director is described as overstepping the boundaries of his power, acting against standard procedure, and even the law. Lindenstrauss does not go so far as to accuse Shani of any crimes, lack of integrity, or favoring any specific companies, but does accuse him of rampant disregard for procedure.

Even if Shani is acting with the good of the state in mind, (Shani’s strategy is to increase Israeli security-related exports, a large source of income for the country) his actions are not justified, according to the comptroller.

The issue is not one of bending the rules because of immediate operational needs – rather, for money. These steps, according to the comptroller, were made with high-level Defense Ministry officials turning a blind eye, and disregarding proper procedure. The Defense Ministry ignored its obligation to consult with the Foreign Ministry regarding weapons deals with foreign countries, and forced defense industry companies to avoid competition with one another in foreign markets, which is against the rules.

The Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, is not the target of criticism in this year’s report, but comparisons were made with the Minister’s wasteful journey to the 2009 air salon. Similar to that situation, Barak did not divulge any details, and those under him knew that they had a free hand – and thus diverged from standard operating procedure. The Defense Ministry, we must remember, has received harsh criticism for putting Israel in a series of uncomfortable positions because of its sloppy way of conducting itself, for example, the incident in which Israel entered into a deal with China to produce airborne “Phalcon” radar systems, which angered the U.S. and caused a serious rift in relations between the two countries.

Even more serious was the affair concerning anti-tank defenses, in which the Israel Security Services interrupted the production of “Iron Fist” systems. In the report, the comptroller describes incomprehensible zigzagging in decision making, partial, haphazard checks and supervision, and a lack of transparency and documentation of Defense Ministry affairs.

According to Lindenstrauss, Shani overstepped his authority when he decided that Refael was to be the main contractor in the tank defense project. The comptroller shows understanding of the feelings of urgency behind the Defense Ministry elite’s actions, however he points out that the actions in question concern deals worth billions. That, however, is the small problem, relatively speaking, as human life is at stake when the issue is the quality of defense systems for IDF soldiers.

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