Israeli Army Makes Plans to Limit Religious Influence on Troops

The army intends to close the Jewish Identity branch of the Military Rabbinate, a move supported by senior army officers; the Military Rabbinate will fight the decision.

IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz.
Emil Salman

The Israel Defense Forces is making plans to shutter a branch of the Military Rabbinate devoted to Jewish identity, as part of an effort to reduce the power of the religious corps.

The army’s Manpower Directorate has proposed closing the branch, which has been in existence since 2001, and transferring it in a more limited capacity to the Education Corps, following the guidance of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to remove some of the Military Rabbinate’s power.

Haaretz has learned that senior officers, including Manpower Directorate chief Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, support the move. The Military Rabbinate reportedly intends to strenuously fight the decision.

The Military Rabbinate and Education Corps have been waging turf wars for the past decade. Following on from the state comptroller’s report in 2012, which stated that educational matters in the IDF were in disarray, a senior officer says the objective is to ultimately combine the activities of the two, giving it a unitary command structure. The IDF spokesman did not respond to a query by Haaretz regarding the target date for the merger, but the aim is to complete it as part of a more general reorganization plan.

The Jewish identity department intensified its activities between 2006 and 2010, during the term of Chief Military Rabbi Avichai Rontzki. Its stated objective is “to strengthen the fighting spirit and sense of mission of the army’s combat units, based on spiritual Jewish sources.”

It has two sections, one devoted to days of learning, lectures on army bases, special Shabbat events and performances by the Rabbinate’s entertainment troupe. The other disseminates material and runs a website.

During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, it emerged that the department was handing out a pamphlet which contained messages that encouraged cruelty, along with political statements such as the prohibition on conceding “even one millimeter” of the Land of Israel. The army investigated the incident, and then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi determined that it constituted a violation of the status quo and damaged the IDF.

The state comptroller determined that the chief military rabbi had ordered the holding of monthly sessions devoted to Jewish awareness in all units. The Education Corps was furious, saying this could impact other educational activities that dealt with topics such as democracy. The chief of staff’s bureau tried to mediate between the two parties.

The IDF spokesman commented that “as part of a multiyear reorganization plan, several evaluations will be conducted – including one on the Rabbinate’s structure. No decisions have been made as yet. The IDF will continue to conduct educational and heritage-related activities, as well as ones devoted to Jewish identity.”