The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, tops the list of the country’s admired public servants. His year and a half at the helm has proved how justified his appointment was. He has presided over key structural changes in the military and shown determination when he transferred the Jewish identity branch to the Manpower Directorate from the military rabbinate to curb its power.
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Unfortunately, Eisenkot has suffered a rare failure in his appointment of a new chief military chief rabbi. While the position carries the rank of brigadier general and its holder isn’t on the general staff, the job carries great weight in the volatile area of relations between the army and society, especially in a country that hasn’t separated religion from state.
Statements by the appointee, Rabbi Eyal Karim, include permission to commit rape during war. He once said: “Although fraternizing with a non-Jewess is a very bad thing, it is allowable in war out of consideration for the difficulties of the fighters. And because the success of the collective is what mostly concerns us in war, the Torah allows the individual to satisfy his lust in the permitted conditions for the sake of the general success.”
He has also said that a military order that violates Jewish law should not be obeyed, that it is permitted to kill wounded terrorists, that gay people are sick, that women should not be drafted into the IDF, and that a woman is not fit to be a witness in court because “women are sentimental.” All these statements make clear that Karim cannot fulfill the post of IDF chief rabbi. These statements weren’t uncovered suddenly; they appeared on the religious website Kipa as answers to readers’ questions in 2002 and 2003.
Eisenkot’s predecessors were negligent when they recruited Karim, a reserve officer, to return to serve in the military. Now Eisenkot is compounding their error by trying to promote him. Despite the criticism, he’s not admitting his mistake but is entrenching himself in it.
The appointment of a new chief rabbi is especially sensitive today when the question of who has the final authority in the army – the commander or the rabbi – is repeatedly raised. The message conveyed by appointing Karim undermines a linchpin of the army: Military orders are the ultimate authority, not religious law – during both routine times and wartime.
Karim has issued a letter that he believes clarifies his earlier statements. “The chief rabbi of the IDF, like all IDF soldiers and commanders, is subordinate to the chief of general staff and the military hierarchy,” he wrote.
Karim added: “The chief military rabbinate is the rabbinate of all IDF soldiers. I recognize the differences and variety among IDF soldiers and the important contribution made by every soldier, male or female, who serves in the IDF, regardless of his sexual orientation, ethnic group or nationality.”
Still, a shadow hovers over Karim’s appointment and his ability to serve as a spiritual authority in the military. Now that Eisenkot has reaffirmed his support for Karim’s appointment, it’s up to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who must sign off on this unfortunate choice, to save the honor and image of the IDF.