Rabbis Force Israeli Military to Rethink Limiting Religious Influence on Troops

IDF’s proposal to lessen authority of its Military Rabbinate hits fierce resistance from religious circles both within and outside army.

Chief Military Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz (right) at a Northern Command ceremony, November 2014
Rami Shllush

The Israel Defense Forces’ plan to reduce the power of its Military Rabbinate has encountered strong resistance from rabbis within and outside the army, forcing the IDF to rethink its proposal.

Haaretz reported last month that the IDF was looking to lessen the duties of the Military Rabbinate’s Jewish identity branch, which provides materials and organizes programs for Israeli soldiers. It had initially proposed transferring those responsibilities to the Education Corps, but pushback by a number of rabbis has caused it to look for an alternative solution.

Possible alternatives might include transferring the branch to the direct command of the Manpower Directorate, thus limiting the influence of the Education Corps on the branch’s activities.

The Jewish identity branch was established within the Military Rabbinate in 2001, and has been the cause of major infighting between the rabbinate and Education Corps ever since. The rabbinate has had growing influence within the General Staff and on combat units, and this period has seen a steady rise in the number of religious soldiers and commanders in these units.

The Jewish identity branch conducts seminars and lectures on bases, holds special weekend programs on religious issues, arranges performances by the Military Rabbinate’s entertainment troupe, and provides lesson plans and other materials for use in the army, as well as running a website making these and other materials available to soldiers.

Last June, only a few months after his appointment, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot spoke of reducing the Military Rabbinate’s responsibilities. As part of the IDF’s new multiyear plan, Eisenkot has ordered major cuts at army headquarters, including in both the Military Rabbinate and Education Corps.

Manpower Directorate chief Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky supports closing the Jewish identity branch, while transferring some of its activities to the Education Corps. His division is already in the advanced stages of planning for such a move.

These proposals caused a stir in religious circles, though, and led to accusations that the Education Corps was trying to intentionally reduce the influence of the Military Rabbinate.

A month ago, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon met with leading rabbis from the religious Zionist movement, pre-army preparatory programs and hesder yeshivas in order to discuss the issue.

After the meeting, a number of the rabbis present said that Ya’alon promised to consider their positions when the IDF presented the matter to him. Since then, Knesset members and rabbis have continued to apply heavy pressure on Ya’alon to intervene and stop the plans.

Last week, Topolansky invited Chief Military Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz and the head of the Education Corps, Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk, to discuss the matter with him.

A new idea was raised at the meeting: Instead of transferring the branch to the Education Corps, a new unit – run jointly by the Military Rabbinate and Education Corps – would be established, under the command of the Manpower Directorate. The IDF is now developing a new plan to achieve this, although the Education Corps still fears the idea is to keep the new body under the Military Rabbinate’s influence.