Close the IDF’s Missionizing Unit

The Israel Defense Forces must not be subject to rabbinic and messianic influences; it must educate its soldiers and commanders toward values shared by all of Israeli society.

An Israeli soldier praying during Operation Protective Edge
Moti Milrod

The Jewish awareness branch in the military rabbinate is one of the most prominent tools of religionization in the Israel Defense Forces, one which is actively striving to change the character of the army to religious nationalist. The branch holds conferences and lectures at army bases, special Sabbath events to discuss religious issues, and is also responsible for disseminating material and lesson plans.

Lectures and publications by the branch have on a number of occasions prompted soldiers to complain that the rabbinate was preaching religion and addressing battlefield values in a manner that interferes with the authority of commanders. At the same time, there was also heightened criticism in the army over the rabbinate’s increased power and the decline in the activities of the military’s Education Corps.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said after taking office that he favored curtailing the powers of the military rabbinate by restoring them to their previous level. “When we get confused on maneuvers we return to the last point marked. We took things too far, and now we have to take one step back,” Eisenkot said. Following his directive, the army’s Manpower Directorate put together a plan to move the Jewish awareness branch from the IDF rabbinate to the Education Corps, where it would operate in a more limited way. However, the plan was shelved due to pressure from rabbis. The IDF is now preparing an alternative plan, by which the branch will be transferred to the Manpower Directorate, but the rabbinate will still be in control of it.

A report by Gili Cohen in Haaretz Monday provided more proof of the biased and missionary character of the Jewish awareness branch. It revealed that 25,000 copies of books had been ordered, defined as “professional literature to strengthen the fighting spirit in the IDF from Jewish sources.” These books included an illustrated prayer book for children and the book “Industry of Lies,” by journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, delegitimizing entities identified by the author as “radical left.” The list also includes books devoted to issues of war from the viewpoint of rabbis.

The selection of these books clearly highlights efforts to disseminate content of a religious-right-wing nature, which is the wrong thing to do for a body that is meant to be free of political or religious influences and to provide a space that can be shared by soldiers from diverse groups in the population.

The Israel Defense Forces must not be subject to rabbinic and messianic influences, which usually go hand in hand with a particular political outlook. It must educate its soldiers and commanders toward values shared by all of Israeli society. Chief of Staff Eisenkot must persist in his fully justifiable efforts to stop the process of a religious takeover of the army, and close down the Jewish awareness branch, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon must give him full backing on this issue.