Leading Rabbi Opposes Religious Rule in Israel

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, left, with Rabbi Eli Sadan, during a 2014 visit to the settlement of Eli in the West Bank, where Sadan founded a pre-military preparatory program.
President Reuven Rivlin, left, with Rabbi Sadan, during a 2014 visit to the settlement of Eli, where Sadan founded a pre-military preparatory program.Credit: Mark Neuman / GPO

Rabbi Eli Sadan, the so-called father of pre-military preparatory programs in Israel and a leader in the right-wing religious Zionist community, published a pamphlet this week in which he explained his positions concerning religion, the state and the military.

Among other things he wrote in the booklet, entitled "Who are you, religious Zionism?," Sadan rules out the existence of a state based on halakha (Jewish religious law), objects to refusing military orders and supports the Shin Bet security service’s investigation into last summer's murder of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank, an act he harshly condemns.

Nonetheless, Sadan declares that religious Zionism is facing “false incitement” and “jealousy, hatred and evil-mindedness,” which he compares to the act of the sinking of the Altalena in 1948 (the ship, carrying members of the right-wing Irgun underground, was attacked by army forces after arriving in Tel Aviv against Israeli government's orders). The rabbi also criticized those who claim that the Israel Defense Forces is undergoing a process of religionization, and writes: “There is not now and there has never been any conspiracy to take over the army, the Shin Bet or the Mossad."

Sadan’s booklet, which was distributed to his students, touches on major disagreements within the national religious movement, including the role he and his fellow rabbis fill for their students who go on to serve in the IDF; the transfer of the Jewish Identity branch of the Military Rabbinate to the IDF Manpower Directorate; and the fact that there is a long list of individuals educated in the religious Zionist movement who play important roles in the Israel Police, Shin Bet and Mossad.

Sadan is considered to be quite influential among the religious public, ranging from its more “bourgeoisie” center to more right-wing members. Moreover, it is said that among those who listen to his declarations is the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett.

Sadan founded the Bnei David preparatory program in the settlement of Eli in the West Bank, the first of dozens of such programs which prepare high-school graduates for service in the IDF. He has served as rabbi to hundreds of army officers, including Col. Ofer Winter, whose efforts – as commander of the Givati Brigade during 2014's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – to rally troops with religious exhortations stirred controversy.

As to what some see as the “scary” claim that the religious are taking over the military, Sadan says young Orthodox people are inducted like all Israelis into the army and are deployed in the same way, based on IDF decisions. As to the presence of women in the military, in the booklet Sadan again enjoins his students not to refuse an order to be present when women are singing at an army event.

“We must avoid reaching a situation of refusing an order, so a soldier who is required to participate in an event considered immodest according to his [religious] beliefs may politely ask not to participate in a cultural event that opposes his worldview, but if the commander insists, you must not refuse [an order] but enter, close your ears with ear plugs and look down at the ground," Sadan writes. "The battle against this ugly trend must be conducted by civilians, and not the soldiers themselves."

To his regret, he goes on, "a culture war has broken out in the army today. In my opinion, we must stop this war and reach a proper solution."

Sadan also clarifies his stance on several disputes between the Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate: “When you demand that cadets in [officers training school] hear an hour-long lecture from a young man who is part of the LGBT community, who explains that it is completely normal and that society needs to get used to there being no difference between a family of a man and a woman, and a family of two men; and when they take soldiers to see plays that contain obscene language and nude scenes, and of course a radical left-wing views, and the Education Corps calls that education toward openness, enlightenment, accepting the 'other' – this is a cynical attempt to turn the army into an institution that will reeducate the religious.”

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