Israeli Military Facial-hair Furor Cuts Across Religious, Nonreligious Lines

Nonreligious and moderately observant soldiers claim ultra-Orthodox will benefit most from new policy limiting those who can grow beards. Leading Zionist religious rabbi: Religious soldiers should refuse order to shave.

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Religious soldier in IDF ceremony
Religious soldier in IDF ceremony Credit: Ilan Assayag

Orthodox soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces joined the protest against the new regulation pertaining to growing beards that takes effect on Tuesday. Their argument: More strictly observant ultra-Orthodox soldiers will get preferential treatment.

The protest this week came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by a group of non-observant soldiers at the High Court of Justice last Thursday, claiming they would be discriminated against under the new directive, in favor of religious soldiers. Now the moderately religious soldiers are concerned that they will receive unfair treatment in comparison to the ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

Under the new rule, beginning on March 1, IDF soldiers must be clean-shaven unless they have received permission to grow a beard from the Military Rabbinate, their unit commander and the IDF Adjutant Corps, a branch of the Manpower Directorate. The approval may be based on religious or medical reasons.

The order will affect thousands of men in the standing army and reserves. Since there was no secret that the IDF was preparing to implement it, there has been much discussion of the move for some months.

Complaints have also come from observant soldiers in the Nahal infantry brigade, whose ranks include members of hesder yeshivas (combining army service with religious studies), and who claim that even before the order was taking effect, their commanders had ordered them to shave.

File photo: A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces' ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda infantry unit.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Army sources say the issue of the observant soldiers will only be discussed, within the framework of the IDF Rabbinate, next week.

Observant soldiers who are commanded to shave should refuse orders, said Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Hacohen Aviner, an influential personality in religious Zionist circles. Such a soldier "should not shave even if he receives 100 lashes and goes to jail,” Aviner told the religious website Srugim. Such a regulation reflects “dark days in the IDF,” the rabbi added.

The Book of Leviticus forbids a man to shave the “side-growth of [his] beard,” which is widely interpreted as encompassing all facial hair.

In anticipation of the new rule, soldiers began seeking exemptions from shaving some months ago. Nonreligious men claim that the rabbis routinely approved beards among religious soldiers, but not for them.

However, a recent survey conducted via cell phone by the Association of Hesder Yeshivas, encompassing some 400 of those soldiers in the standing army, revealed a different picture. According to Muli Jesselson, head of the association, only 57 percent of "hesderniks" received permission to grow beards; 30 percent said they hadn’t received answers yet; and 13 percent said their request had been denied. Most of the latter appealed the decision.

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers asking for permission to grow beards get it automatically, claims Jesselson, whereas religious Zionist soldiers “have to sweat for it”.

Moreover, since the IDF has stepped up the induction of ultra-Orthodox men, he added, the hesderniks are perceived as “less religious.”

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Knesset will have to decide on their compulsory induction into the IDF. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“It’s a sort of food chain,” Jesselson explained. “They say they’re the real observant ones, and are given all sorts of benefits ... It is important that the ultra-Orthodox population is being drafted, we applaud it, but it hurts our yeshiva boys who give their soul [to be in the army]. We view the erosion in status and in the service conditions of our boys very gravely.”

A matter of 'free will'?

The order that takes effect Tuesday is an amended version of the original rule. That proposal – which would have allowed observant soldiers to receive permits for beards from rabbinate officers ranked lieutenant general or higher, while their nonreligious comrades-in-arms would have needed permission from higher-ranking Central Command adjutants – sparked an uproar last June. Social networks featured a protest called “Free will,” featuring soldiers pictured with beards.

Ultimately the order was revised following a petition to the High Court of Justice by a young man named Lior Shtelzer. At a hearing at the court three months ago, IDF representatives presented a new directive that called for the same terms for all soldiers seeking to grow beards, requiring everyone to obtain permission from Central Command adjutant commanders.

All requests will be examined in the same way in future, taking into consideration whether the beard constitutes an integral part of the soldier’s “image, experience or identity.” The decision does not have to be explained in detail, and it may be appealed. While awaiting a final decision, the appellant may keep his beard.

However, a new petition filed Thursday also by Shtelzer claims the process by which decisions will be made in this matter is still discriminatory. The petition states that the army decided in advance on quotas for bearded men and thus arbitrarily rejects some requests while approving others, to meet the quotas.

The state was given three weeks to respond.

Fig leaf beard

In a conversation with Haaretz, Shtelzer called the new order a “fig leaf” designed to conceal the real intent of the top army brass – which was and remains to discourage facial hair. In his opinion, any soldier should be able to exercise his right to grow a beard if it’s important to him, regardless of whether he is observant or what form his religious faith takes.

For his part, Jesselson of the hesder association believes that the latest formulation of the order derives from political machinations both within and outside the IDF, with respect to the overall status of the religious establishment and the rabbinate in Israel.

“The status of the rabbinate has been eroding,” he said, "which comes on the heels of the [call to do away with the] Jewish Awareness unit in the military rabbinate, and the cutting of positions.”

IDF sources declare that the reaction to the new regulation is out of all proportion. No soldier will have to shave if his religious conscience does not allow it, they say.

Sharing his own picture from boot camp on his Facebook page, IDF spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz wrote, “There is no intention of hurting any soldier’s feelings. An observant soldier who wants to grow a beard will tell his commander so, as will any soldier who wants to grow a beard for any other reason (thousands of soldiers have had their requests to their commanders approved).

"On the other hand, a disciplined army cannot just let everyone grow beards, so clear rules were determined. Any soldier wanting to grow a beard for religious or personal reasons (not just to avoid shaving for morning inspection) will tell his commanders, who will listen. We will listen,” Almoz wrote.

Finally, the IDF spokesman commented, “As decided last summer, the order has been amended and is about to come into force. All requests for permission to grow beards are to be studied in depth by the authorized elements at Central Command, and they will take into consideration the recommendations of commanding officers and rabbis.”

The spokesman added that all requests are to be treated equally, irrespective of the soldier’s religious leanings, and all soldiers have the right to appeal.

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