Israel's Army Needs Changes, Says Chief of Staff in 'Jewish Identity' Brouhaha

While defense minister supports Gadi Eisenkot's decision, it aroused opposition among religious Zionist circles; if I were still the head military rabbi, I'd quit, says Avichai Rontzki over decision to move Jewish Identity unit to Manpower Directorate.

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Israeli soldiers praying (near the Israel Gaza border, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014).
Israeli soldiers praying.Credit: AP

Following his final decision on Monday to move the Israeli army's "Jewish Identity" branch from the Military Rabbinate to the Manpower Directorate, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot issued a letter advising of the decision. The purpose, he explained in the letter sent Tuesday to all Israel Defense Forces officers ranked major and up, is to "preserve the IDF as a national army in a democratic state".

The decision boils down to the responsibility for the Jewish Identity branch being taken from the Military Rabbinate and given directly to the Manpower Directorate commander. From this point, that commander, Major General Hagai Topolansky, will be responsible for supervising the activities of the unit, which have been controversial within the army and without.

While Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon supported Eisenkot's decision, it aroused opposition among religious Zionist circles, including with the former head of the Military Rabbinate, Avichai Rontzki , who had been involved in promoting the Jewish Identity branch in the army. Speaking with Army Radio this morning, Rontzki said that if he'd still been the army's chief rabbi, he would have quit over this decision. In the past, Rontzki also said the issue merited a "political crisis" and that he had advised the ministers of Habayit Hayehudi (the party headed by Naftali Bennett to which Rontzki also belongs) about the developments.

Haim Druckman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and among the elder rabbis in the religious Ziomist movement, also spoke out against Eisenkot's decision. Under the army's own rules, since the IDF's establishment, Jewish Identity has been among the topics that the military rabbinate handles, Druckman said.

"Under chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the question arose of dividing the various functions in respect to Jewish Identity between the rabbinate and the Education corps. The decision fell that the rabbinate would handle the origins and the Education corps would handle the new age," he said, adding that would have solved the problem and hopefully, Israeli soldiers would have received the appropriate motivation. "Why take the whole thing away from the rabbinate? It does great damage to the rabbinate and even more to the IDF soldiers in general. The decision is highly regrettable but it's still possible to come to one's senses and leave things the way they are."

IDF chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Druckman also attacked Haaretz over its coverage of the dispute. "I deeply regret that the chief of staff, whom I hold in very high esteem, behaved in respect to the Jewish Identity according to the dictates of a newspaper which is cold to everything relating to Judaism. Otherwise it is incomprehensible why Jewish Identity would be taken away from the Military Rabbinate."

Haaretz first reported the expected decision in late December.

At first the IDF had thought to move the Jewish Identity branch to the Education Corps. Eisenkot however thought that unfeasible, and army sources climed it could lead rabbis to hold unsupervised, illicit Jewish education sessions. In fact the Education Corps and Military Rabbinate have been fighting over this jurisdiction for about a decade.

The Jewish Identity branch was established within the military rabbinate in 2001. 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. It also runs a website making these and other materials available to soldiers.

Many officers, 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 the unit 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.

Avichai Rontzky, former head of the Military Rabbinate: Removing the 'Jewish Identity' unit from the rabbinate is an issue worth quitting over.Credit: Emil Salman

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