IDF’s Jewish Identity Branch to Be Moved Away From Military Rabbinate

The army chief of staff's decision is expected to draw harsh criticism from rabbis of the religious Zionist movement as well as Knesset members from Habayit Hayehudi.

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

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot made a final decision on Monday to move the IDF’s Jewish Identity branch from the Military Rabbinate to the Manpower Directorate, and not to the Education Corps. The unit will now be under the direct responsibility of Manpower Directorate chief Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, who will closely supervise the controversial unit’s activities. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon supported the decision.

Eisenkot’s decision is expected to draw harsh criticism from rabbis of the religious Zionist movement as well as Knesset members from Habayit Hayehudi, many of whom spoke out against the move even before the final decision was made. Haaretz reported the expected decision in late December.

However, Eisenkot did not completely implement the idea he originally considered to transfer the unit to the responsibility of the Education Corps, which has seen a severe ideological conflict with the Military Rabbinate in recent years.

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.

IDF sources told Haaretz on Monday that Topolansky will take care to ensure the Jewish Identity unit will be strictly supervised, more balanced and under better control – and that Eisenkot himself plans on being personally involved in supervising the content the unit distributes in the future.

The unit’s new activities will be determined over the coming year, but it will be shifted to its new home and removed from the Military Rabbinate soon. A new steering committee under Topolansky will be established for the unit and include Chief Military Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz and the commander of the Education Corps, Brig. Gen. Avner Zuk-Paz. Some of the officers now serving in the unit will continue, while new blood will be brought in.