Israeli Army's Junior Officers to Be Educated Only by Orthodox Groups

Of the nine groups approved to educate junior IDF officers, four are Orthodox or Orthodox-leaning ■ Only soldiers ranked platoon commander and higher will be allowed to hold meetings with pluralistic organizations

File photo: Soldiers at the Western Wall in 2016.
Emil Salman

Most of the organizations the army has authorized to lecture and educate soldiers on “Jewish identity” are Orthodox, according to a list the Israel Defense Forces released last week. Some of these organizations’ declared goal is to turn secular soldiers into religious ones. 

The educational activity authorized for junior officers, for example, will be provided by three or four Orthodox organizations and not a single pluralistic one. Sources in pluralistic organizations warned that this means further reducing soldiers’ ability to entertain and understand pluralistic positions.

“The IDF has decided to wipe out numerous soldiers’ secular background,” one source said.

Last week the IDF published a list of 80 civilian institutions which the army contracted to give lectures and various activities to soldiers. This followed Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s statement in 2016 that the IDF will stop using outside organizations to educate soldiers and that officers would be responsible for lectures in the army.

>> Despite Promises, Israeli Military Expanded Religious Activity Over Past Two Years

Senior officers said this was based on the desire to keep political and religious arguments out of the army, following pressures that rabbis and rightist politicians exerted against several civilian institutions like the Shalom Hartman Institute and Bina Secular Yeshiva, which lectured soldiers about religious pluralism.

For more than a year the Education Corps and heads of the Jewish Identity department, which is part of the Personnel Directorate, drafted criteria and examined civilian organizations. They also determined the topics about which unit commanders may request lectures, such as the Holocaust memory, the heritage of the IDF or geography.

Nine organizations on the IDF’s list are permitted to deal with “Jewish identity and awareness” among junior officers (from company commander upward). Three — Elad/Ir David, the Darkei Avot seminary and the Chabad-affiliated Ascent of Safed — are explicitly Orthodox. A fourth, the Kfar Etzion field school, also holds Orthodox views.

The other five organizations, which include the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute and Neot Kedumim, do not deal with Jewish identity from a secular perspective. 

Only platoon commanders and officers of higher ranks are allowed to hear lectures given by a pluralistic organization — the Shitim Institute, whose activity scope is relatively small, certainly compared to Ir David.
The activities of two other pluralistic organizations — Bina and the religious seminary at Oranim — were restricted to captains and lieutenants colonel, respectively. As far as is known, the civilian committee in charge of supervising the activity of the army’s department for Jewish identity didn’t discuss the organizations on the list and their educational activity.

In July Haaretz reported on data presented to the Knesset by Jotam Brum of Panim, the Israeli Judaism Network, who found that last year the amounts the IDF paid to Elad for educating soldiers increased 140 percent, to around 800,000 shekels ($220,000).Funding for the Darkei Avot organization in Jerusalem, once barred from the IDF but recently reapproved, rose 400 percent, to 300,000 shekels. The Ascent organization in Safed, which is affiliated with Chabad, also increased its activity. The organizations whose activity for soldiers increased are mainly religious ones. Pluralistic organizations did not register a similar expansion in funds and activity.

The IDF’s list includes for the first time the right-wing the Tavor Leadership Academy and the Jewish Statesmanship Center in Jerusalem.
A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the list was an attempt “to push out the pluralistic organizations by reducing their education activity — in the guise of ‘statesmanship’. According to this approach, Ir David, which operates in East Jerusalem, isn’t political. Moreover, the secular, pluralistic position is seen as too complicated for the soldiers, while there’s no problem with the Chabadnik Ascent.”

“The soldiers shouldn’t have to argue on state and religion issues — but carry a stretcher together,” says a senior army officer. “They shouldn’t deal with these issues, they don’t know how to process them. Such arguments don’t contribute to the soldiers’ fortitude. On the other hand, senior commanders need to know how to handle complex issues.”

“The army must be kept free of political and religious influences,” says Brum, of Panim. “The current reform gives preference to religious organizations, some of which openly state their purpose is to turn secular Jews into religious ones.”

Another source says that “the pluralistic worldview has gradually become controversial in the army, so it tries to avoid it as much as possible. On the other hand, the army takes the Orthodox approach for granted. There’s nothing natural about that — it’s the result of a systematic campaign that rightist and religious organizations have been waging in recent years.”
He says that even if senior officers understand that the list is problematic, “it was finally decided not to go to battle over it.”

“The IDF presented the list as a move to balance between the Orthodox and pluralistic organizations,” an official in the Secular Forum says. “But when you look at the names you see that junior soldiers — most of the army — will remain exposed to increasing religious coercion and lectures by religious organizations. These groups have access to all army ranks, while the few pluralistic organizations are limited to the senior ranks.”

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit said in a response that each organizations was told which ranks it could work with, which subjects it could teach and with which lecturers. The approved organizations are obliged to fulfill the criteria set for them. These criteria do not include examining each organization’s Jewish identity, but its suitability to the IDF’s education goals."