IDF Chief of Staff's Courageous Step

A prominent initiative taken by Gadi Eisenkot calls for closing the Jewish awareness unit that operates within the military rabbinate.

Tomer Appelbaum

If it were only possible, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot should be awarded a medal. The five-year-plan that the general staff has formulated under his guidance demonstrates an impressive style of leadership. It’s not just a matter of resource management and setting priorities, but a true effort, at times revolutionary, to conduct a re-examination which does not hesitate to delve into value-related issues.

In this respect, a prominent and courageous initiative taken by Eisenkot calls for closing the Jewish awareness unit that operates within the military rabbinate. Such a move is not as financially significant as, say, cutting back one submarine from the navy’s arsenal, and it doesn’t carry the same piquant aroma as would the closure of Army Radio, but it nevertheless constitutes a strategic move.

The unit for Jewish awareness has been active since 2001. Over the last decade it has grown, constantly expanding the areas it deals with while taking over responsibility for educating IDF soldiers in murky topics such as “identity” and “values." With a passion reserved for missionaries who have seen the light, members of this unit initiate and promote countless lectures, guided tours, seminars and publications that are designed to promote indoctrination of an ultra-national-religious ideology.

One could compare this unit to a reconnaissance unit, spearheading a gigantic campaign aimed at a religious takeover of the army and its subjugation to the Almighty. This effort is taking place in tandem not only with changes in the political and societal spheres, but also with a major shift in the nature of IDF operations. The Israeli military has been transformed from an army designed to defend this state and its borders against regular armies, into a police force ruling over occupied territories and their residents and primarily defending settlements and their population.

This story is huge. The public and media remember it from time to time, under the over-arching caption of an “increased religiosity” of the army. This refers mainly to the more titillating lifestyle issues (such as women's voices heard in song, coerced observance of the Sabbath, draconian kashrut regulations). Prof. Yagil Levy, one of the most consistent and prominent researchers of the inter-relations between society, politics and the army, goes one step further. In a new book about the “theocratization” of Israel’s army Levy draws a portrait of a gradual and systematic penetration of religious authority into core military activities.

The unit for Jewish awareness and the military rabbinate can be viewed merely as service providers or terminals. Eisenkot’s predecessors had reservations about their activities but preferred to turn a blind eye or to curb singularly offensive instances. In any case, the true systemic infrastructure that is driving the religious takeover of the army lies outside the military. This consists of the dozens of “hesder” yeshivas and pre-enlistment programs operating mainly in the occupied territories. These institutions are financed and subsidized by the state, preparing people for service in combat units. However, neither the state nor the army have any influence on the content imparted within those frameworks.

Levy’s book mentions another focus of national-religious indoctrination, an issue lying in plain view. This is the Kfir brigade, which is comprised of forces whose only mission is to police the West Bank. It includes an ultra-Orthodox Nahal battalion, along with other units which consist almost exclusively of religious settlers. The daily contact they have with Palestinian and Jewish residents has far-reaching implications. If Eisenkot re-examines this ticking bomb as well, he should be a candidate for the army’s highest medal of distinction.