The Israeli army is gearing up for the closure of the military rabbinate's Jewish awareness program and its transfer to the manpower directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, which is expected within the next several weeks.
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Despite heavy political pressure against the step, which was approved by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, IDF sources said they expected the change to go ahead, shifting responsibility from Chief Military Rabbi Rafi Peretz to manpower division head Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky. At the same time, Jewish identity programming in the IDF's Education Corps, will also be transferred to the manpower division and be consolidated with the other Jewish Identity programs that the division will received from the military rabbinate.
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.
The reason for the changes, senior army sources have said, is a desire to maintain the status of the army as an official state institution and strengthen oversight of the Jewish identity programming. A senior army source called the organizational change one of the IDF's most significant after years of concerns over the sensitivity of the issue.
The army has decided to form a steering committee that will provide an advisory team for Maj. Gen. Topolansky with regard to policy on Jewish awareness programming. The panel, which will function for the next two years, will advise on matters of content and the character of the discourse when it comes to Jewish awareness and identity. In addition, it will provide oversight at the administrative level.