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Rabbis Embrace Israel's New Army Chief. For Now

After a lengthy crisis between the army and the religious-nationalist public, now it appears that 'Lt. Gen. Kochavi is truly a different sort of person'

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Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in 2019.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Rabbi Itamar Segal, a member of the “Reservist Rabbis” forum, has strong views about the current IDF chief of staff and of his predecessor, too. In an article last week in the popular synagogue handout Olam Katan (Small World), Segal informs readers that “something new is starting in the IDF.” Something good is happening, he writes.

After a lengthy crisis between the army and the religious-nationalist public, now it appears that “Lt. Gen. Kochavi is truly a different sort of person, someone who is determined to bring change and, above all, to repair things. Kochavi may be new, but he should already be congratulated.”

Segal is pleased because the “scissors speech, the strange musings about the principle of ‘hakam lehorgekha’ [‘he who rises to kill you, kill him first’], the preaching about acceptance and equality,” all of which he ascribes to previous IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, have suddenly been replaced by “plain talk about heroism, strength, victory and combat readiness. Kochavi is putting things back how they should be and saying that the role of the IDF is to be a strong, victorious army that fights and soundly defeats the enemy. Such clear and old-fashioned sounds. We’ve missed this. These words penetrate deeply and are translated into actions by the brigade commanders and the officers in the field.”

Kochavi, says Segal, “is a different kind of person, one who has a good understanding of the rules of the Middle Eastern neighborhood,” citing how the new chief of staff “did not wait long before shelving the ‘fake pilot’ of the female tank soldiers. This false experiment, which has nothing to do with military victory, was halted.” And now Segal wants to see further moves: “The chief of staff has to restore the fighting Jewish mindset in each and every soldier, to completely remove the New Israel Fund organizations that have deeply infiltrated the education of the junior ranks and brought people like Yair Golan to the position of deputy chief of staff. He must eradicate the sense of doubt, apology and helplessness, restore confidence and prioritize professionalism over equality.”

Segal also has a lot of advice for the new IDF spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, his main suggestion being – no more articles about an “LGBT deputy battalion commander” (Nahum Barnea interviewed her in Yedioth Ahronoth the same week that Zilberman assumed his post), and more media items “about rabbis in the military, about combat soldiers who made aliyah on their own in order to serve, and about tales of heroism past and present.”

Segal is too generous in giving credit to Kochavi. It was Eisenkot who froze the project of having female soldiers in tanks, a project he himself introduced, in order to let his successor decide on the matter. A final decision is still pending. And in an interview with Ynet this month, the outgoing top armored corps officer, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, expressed support for continuing the project. As far as waging combat, the amount of offensive operations initiated by the IDF – throughout the Middle East – increased dramatically under Eisenkot. Since taking over, Kochavi has largely continued this trend. And while Segal warned against the deleterious effects of nagging doubt, Kochavi views this as an important intellectual tool for officers and consistently preaches its usefulness.

The warm embrace from the hardali (Haredi national-religious) public for the new chief of staff and his spokesperson could vanish in a flash should the army make a decision that is not to the rabbis’ liking. When Segal advises Kochavi to strengthen the military’s Jewish consciousness, he is not speaking just in abstract terms. One of Eisenkot’s most important decisions, in terms of relations between the army and society, was to take the IDF’s Jewish Consciousness Department out of the hands of the IDF rabbinate. His aim was clear: to regain control of the content and messages disseminated by the departments’ rabbis, who for years had been instilling controversial political and religious ideas in the army units. And they had been doing so with the aid of hefty budgets, with zero supervision by the commanders and under the guise of it being a little harmless yiddishkeit. Also, Eisenkot’s comrade Gen. (res.) Prof. Yishai Bar was appointed chairman of the advisory committee to the chief of the Manpower Directorate on army-society affairs. Eisenkot, and many of the other generals, considered Bar a sober, statesmanlike voice on these issues.

Bar’s committee ceased convening a long time ago. As far as the Jewish Consciousness department goes, Eisenkot planned to transfer it to the responsibility of the chief education officer, but ultimately settled on an interim stop, in the wake of significant pressure from civilian rabbis. In an unusual move, the department, headed by a lieutenant colonel, was made directly subordinate to the chief of the Manpower Directorate. And that is where it will stay, apparently. The original plan, for the department to be headed alternately by officers from the military rabbinate and education officers, was not implemented. A new commander, also from the rabbinate, is due to be appointed soon.

Meanwhile, after an extensive review by the Education Corps, the number of organizations and foundations authorized to send speakers and conduct workshops for the army was reduced. But the main impact will apparently be felt by organizations from the liberal side of the map, with access to them now limited to the rank of lieutenant colonel and higher. The military rabbinate has much greater resources than does the Education Corps, whose budget has been steadily cut over the last two decades.

In part, this is a natural result of demographic trends in the military: the steep rise in this period in the proportion of religious soldiers and commanders in the combat units. These soldiers need more religious services and more religious content than was the norm in the IDF in the 1970s and 1980s. But in many of these units, for instance, the Selichot tours (a legitimate and appropriate activity) have turned into religious awakening trips led by the rabbis, with the senior command having long lost control over the scope of these activities and the messages conveyed in them. A few of the generals are voicing unhappiness about this, but so far mostly with quiet grumbling.

From a historic viewpoint, Eisenkot’s valiant efforts notwithstanding, it’s abundantly clear that in this battle the rabbis will triumph. Already, the content to which the average soldier, religious or secular, is exposed is less varied and balanced than was the case in the past – and the army still has inadequate supervision over the rabbis, even with the department being directly subordinate to the chief of the Manpower Directorate. Eisenkot has moved on and, so far, his successor is not showing much interest in these issues. The IDF has, with much difficulty, coped with serious ethical challenges in war and in policing the territories, thanks in part to a years-long education effort that was invested in the commanders and combat troops. In the long term, the changes that have been occurring in recent years with the systematic diminishing of the status of the Education Corps could carry a heavy cost.