For months Israel's national-religious and ultra-Orthodox communities spoke with a single voice in support of keeping the Israel Defense Force’s Jewish Identity branch within the framework of the Military Rabbinate. Now, however, a number of well-known religious figures, including Rabbi Benjamin (Benny) Lau, have come out in support of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot's decision to transfer responsibility for the unit to the IDF Manpower Directorate.
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In a Facebook post on Sunday, Lau, spiritual leader of the Ramban congregation in Jerusalem, wrote that top brass in the Jewish Identity branch “rejected everyone who did not toe the line, with the ‘right’ views. Only when [Eisenkot] took the branch out of their hands did the cries of anti-religious coercion begin.”
The Jewish Identity branch was established in 2001, and has since been a source of major infighting between the rabbinate, which has growing influence in the General Staff and combat units, and the Education Corps. Among other things, the branch, which has a relatively large budget, conducts lectures on bases, holds special weekend programs on religious issues and disseminates information to soldiers via a website, and arranges performances by the rabbinate’s entertainment troupe.
In his post, Lau, a cousin of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, asked what the Military Rabbinate, Channel 20 (a right-leaning Jewish heritage cable TV station) and the Chief Rabbinate all have in common. His answer: They have all recently made the headlines and their common denominator is a “Judaism with aggression” that allows little room for other interpretations.
Relating to the Chief Rabbinate’s attempts to forcefully prevent “others” (i.e., non-Orthodox groups) from praying at the Western Wall, Lau wrote that such efforts show an unwillingness "to provide the spectrum of Jews from around the world with a place and time at the regular Kotel, and [they] attack the government, which is looking for another solution. As if Judaism is only those like us.”
“The State of Israel was established to be a home for the Jewish people," Lau added, "and this people is larger than the sum of its parts. Please make room for everyone!”
The Jewish Identity unit was also a subject of discussion on Monday in the Knesset's religion and state caucus, co-chaired by MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), a former general who is modern Orthodox and served as the IDF's chief education officer and commander of the Manpower Directorate.
“If Judaism is part of the education in the IDF, then there is also someone who is responsible for education in the IDF,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate that those behind the campaign to keep the unit within the confines of the Military Rabbinate did not attend the meeting.
MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), co-chairwoman of the caucus who had a national-religious upbringing, said Israel “has been a multicultural melting pot, and what happened in the military is that the cultures do not speak to each other. They are unable to sit around a single table and define what our shared values are as a society.”
Last week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Eisenkot rejected calls to keep the branch within the Military Rabbinate, and spoke about the issue at a meeting in Jerusalem with Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), and a number of well-known rabbis from the national-religious community.
One of the participants expressed his disappointment with the views presented by Ya’alon and Eisenkot, and said: "[They] did not even say they would consider the request. The simply said ‘No’ and ended the discussion. It seemed disrespectful.”