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

In 2016, responsibility was transferred from the military rabbinate to the head of the personnel directorate with the aim of maintaining the IDF as 'a national army in a democratic state.'

Soldiers by the Western Wall
Emil Salman

The army has strongly increased funding for religious organizations since making a Jewish Identity unit a part of its personnel directorate, according to data presented during a Knesset debate on Tuesday about "religionization" or increased religious influence inside the military.

Two-thirds of the army’s “educational Shabbats” are run by Orthodox organizations, and almost 80 percent of lecturers invited by the Jewish identity unit have an Orthodox orientation.

Thus it seems that under cover of the army’s pledge to supervise the unit and, if necessary, “rectify” its actions, the power of religious organizations has actually grown.

In January 2016, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot transferred responsibility for the unit from the military rabbinate to the head of the personnel directorate, with the aim of more closely supervising its activities.

Soldiers on tour in the City of David in Silwan, 2014.
Emil Salman

The unit's activities under the headings of “combat morality” and “fighting spirit” in conflicts with the Palestinians, have generated controversy.

Eisenkot said at the time that the organizational change was mandated by a desire to maintain the IDF as “a national army in a democratic state.” Off the record, senior army officers said the move would reduce the influence that rabbis exerted on the soldiers.

But data presented to the Knesset by Jotam Brum of the organization Panim, the Israeli Judaism Network, amassed through a series of freedom of information requests to the army and the Defense Ministry, show that religious organizations have expanded their activities in the army.

Tuesday’s meeting was sponsored by the Knesset’s secular caucus, led by MKs Ksenia Svetlova and Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz).

Brum said that despite Eisenkot’s changes, “the military rabbinate’s work plan on the issue of Jewish awareness wasn’t altered, and military rabbis continue to lead ‘Jewish awareness’ activities for soldiers and officers.”

Moreover, the process of “updating the orders” apparently hasn’t yet been completed.

The data shows that last year, 115 rabbis from the professional ranks and 485 from the reserves were active in the IDF. Taken together, this total is greater than the number of state-funded positions for municipal rabbis, neighborhood rabbis and local religious councils combined, which comes to about 500.

An analysis of the army’s budget for outside organizations running activities for soldiers shows that last year, the money allocated to Elad – an organization which runs the City of David National Park and also settles Jews in East Jerusalem – rose by 140 percent, to 800,000 shekels ($220,000), compared to 2016. Funding for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation rose by 150 percent.

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.

In contrast, pluralistic organizations like BINA – The Jewish Movement for Social Change or the Chagim Center showed no similar increase.

One of the changes made by the new-old unit was to institute “selichot tours” – nighttime visits to synagogues to hear the selichot, or penitential prayers, traditionally recited every night in the days prior to the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Yet only three of the 11 organizations approved to run these tours were non-Orthodox.

Moreover, the unit encourages soldiers to participate in tours led by outside organizations with a clearly Orthodox orientation, like the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Elad and Ascent. Thanks to the funds they are able to raise – of which a significant portion comes from government ministries – the religious organizations can offer the tours for free. In contrast, non-Orthodox groups that offered tours in places like the Golan Heights, Mitzpeh Ramon, Tiberias and Tel Aviv had to ask participating army units to pay.

According to the IDF’s data, 26,7000 officers and soldiers participated in 442 selichot tours last year. Only 21 were led by pluralistic organizations.

This past weekend, Haaretz reported the main findings of an Israel Women’s Network report on the IDF’s mixed-gender service order and its impact on female soldiers. Aside from womens' soldiers’ complaints about being pushed to the sidelines, the report showed that the army has adopted stringent interpretations, particularly regarding the dress code for female troops.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the goal of the Jewish identity unit is to “bolster Jewish identity and awareness, the spirit of the IDF and unity within the IDF as a state army.”

It also said there have been “several changes since the unit was set up, both regarding the organizations with which the IDF works and the content the lecturers transmit to those in service. These changes came into being following discussions aimed at increasing efficiency and making this content more accessible to all IDF soldiers, in line with the unit’s goals as determined upon its establishment.

“As the body responsible for the educational Shabbats and selichot tours , the relevant parties in the IDF ensure that the content transmitted is suitable and appropriate for everyone in service, without infringing on their lifestyle,” the statement concluded.