Ultra-Orthodox Politicians Intervene in Israeli Army Affairs to Save Jewish Identity Branch

Heads of Shas, United Torah Judaism meet with Defense Minister Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot, who ultimately reject bid to keep Jewish Awareness Department within the Military Rabbinate.

A rabbi addresses soldiers at a basic training graduation ceremony, 2012.
Alex Levac

Violating their decades-old policy of staying out of the internal politics of the Israeli army, the leaders of the country’s ultra-Orthodox parties have been lobbying Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to keep a Jewish education unit within the Military Rabbinate.

In January, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot decided to remove the Jewish Awareness Department from the Military Rabbinate and to reduce its activities.

On Wednesday morning, Army Radio reported that United Torah Judaism chairman and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery, together with Knesset member Moshe Gafni (UTJ), were scheduled to meet with Ya’alon and Eisenkot in the afternoon to discuss the issue.

“The country’s Jewish character is important to us, and even if most ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve, the state’s Jewish character includes the army,” said a figure in UTJ who requested anonymity and who confirmed the scheduled meeting.

But it later emerged that following the meeting, Ya'alon and Eisenkot rejected the request to keep the Jewish Awareness Department within the Military Rabbinate. One of the attendees expressed disappointment over their reaction, saying that "they didn't even consider the request. They just closed the discussion." Gafni ultimately did not attend the meeting.  

The future of the department has been in question for some time, with some senior officers seeking to close it entirely and turf wars between the IDF Education Corps and the rabbinate over curriculum issues.

Rabbis from the Religious Zionist movement, together with politicians from Habayit Hayehudi, the party that represents the movement, tried to keep the chief of staff from closing the department. As a compromise, it was eventually decided to reduce the department and place it under the IDF’s Personnel Directorate.

But the lobbying has continued. Several days ago, rabbis from the religious Zionist movement held a conference on the issue. Some of their number partnered with reserve officers from the Military Rabbinate and recruited the Haredi parties to the cause. They argue that the Jewish Awareness Department is a bulwark against “Reform and Conservative influences” on the army, led by the Education Corps.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has also entered the fray, writing in a letter to Eisenkot that “Only the Military Rabbinate will guarantee that the Jewish content being instilled in Israel’s soldiers is a continuation of the tradition that has existed until now, and that any change is liable to seriously damage this fabric.”

The Jewish Identity branch was established within the military rabbinate in 2001, and has been at the center of major infighting between the rabbinate and the Education Corps since. The military rabbinate has had growing influence within the General Staff and in combat units, and over this period there has been a steady rise in the number of religious soldiers and commanders in these units – and the Jewish Identity branch spearheaded these efforts. The branch, which has a relatively large budget, holds seminars and conducts lectures on bases, holds special weekend programs on religious issues, arranges performances by the rabbinate’s entertainment troupe, and provides lesson plans and other materials used in the army, as well as running a website making these and other materials available to soldiers.

Many officers in the IDF, as well as left-wing Knesset members, have criticized the expansion of the rabbinate’s influence, accusing the unit of conducting religious brainwashing. The rabbis and MKs from the religious Zionist stream countered that this simply represents the increasing number of religious combat soldiers and commanders in the IDF, and these soldiers both want and need to learn about the religious and ideological context of their military activities, which the Education Corps does not know how to provide.