The tensions between the leadership of the conservative wing of the national- religious sector and the IDF have been revived once again by a new beard controversy over the weekend and by comments made by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel on Sunday morning.
On Friday, a new organization called Tzav Ehad, founded to address religious problems in the IDF, reported that 52 religious recruits recently drafted to the Engineering Corps were forced to shave their beards.
According to the report by Tzav Ehad, the recruits were threatened with being detained on base for Shabbat if they did not comply.
A large number of the soldiers did shave in the end, some of them for the first time in their lives according to Tzav Ehad, while others received punishments from their commanders.
Jewish law prohibits shaving with a razor blade, although shaving with an electric shaver is permitted. Many religious men are stringent not to shave at all, however.
This recent incident is the latest in a long series of such occurrences after the IDF Manpower Directorate issued a directive in December which tightened regulations for receiving a permit to grow a beard, which are in general prohibited.
As well as requiring that a soldier receive permission to grow a beard from the IDF Rabbinate, as was previously the case, the new regulations require permission from the soldier’s unit commander and from the IDF Adjutant Corps, a branch of the Manpower Directorate.
The new requirements went into effect earlier this year and required anyone who already had a beard permit to re-apply for the exemption.
Tzav Ehad said regarding the incident with Engineering Corps recruits that “we see this terrible command which has caused religious soldiers to do something against their beliefs as very grave.
We expect rabbis and public figures dealing with these complaints to annul this illogical command.”
Speaking on the Galei Yisrael radio station on Sunday morning, Ariel said that the reports regarding problems encountered by religious soldiers “are causing pain and anger” and called for a review of the beard policy.
“There is no place in the IDF for this kind of thing, in the army of the Jewish people that rose up after 2,000 years of exile,” the minister said.
“I think it would be a good thing for the IDF Chief of Staff [Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot] to reexamine the regulations and orders [regarding beards] and especially their [the commanders’] behavior, because sometimes there are good intentions, but between the intent and what happens in practice there can be a lot of mistakes.”
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern said he had confirmed the incident which happened 10 days ago, and that he knew at least some of the soldiers had maintained beards for years due to religious principles.
“This kind of thing cannot happen in the IDF,” Stern wrote on his Facebook page. “There is no war here on Judaism, but there are however serious mistakes in the chain of command beginning from the management of the [new] order itself and down to the way in which the commander in the field dealt with it, who failed to show basic responsibility.”
The MK said he hoped the IDF would deal with the incident quickly and efficiently, but added that “there are elements waiting for this kind of mistake by the IDF and are trying to paint this incident as a cultural war.”
Stern was referencing the ongoing tensions between the leadership of the conservative wing of the national-religious sector and the IDF, which have been badly exacerbated by the transfer of the Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF Rabbinate to the Manpower Directorate and the Education Corps at the beginning of this year.
Rabbis from the sector have also objected to what they see as the promulgation of liberal and pluralistic values in the IDF in recent years, which was highlighted by a speech given by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, head of the Eli pre-military academy, in July in which he decried lectures given on tolerance of homosexuals, referring to them as “perverts.”
Stern said that the IDF must not “play into the hands” of those waiting for mistakes such as the incident with recruits from the Engineering Corps.
“I am certain the IDF is not waging a war on religion, there is no connection between the shaving command and the Jewish Identity Branch,” he added.
A spokesman for the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, a framework of joint yeshiva study and IDF service through which thousands of national-religious soldiers enlist, said that it too has been dealing with dozens of problems encountered by religious soldiers since the new regulations were introduced.
He said that the union, because of its close ties to the military and the Manpower Directorate, has been able to resolve most of these problems, and for the most part ensures that recruits who want to maintain a beard obtain a permit on their first day of service at the IDF induction center.
The spokesman said that the union has dealt with dozens of cases in which religious soldiers were ordered to shave, given a court martial if they did not do so, or had their beard permit canceled.
Although the number of incidents has gone down in recent weeks, the union dealt with another three incidents two weeks ago and a new incident last week.
In addition, it has also been reported but not confirmed that a new IDF order has been issued not to allow soldiers with beards to participate in official IDF parades.
“We have helped in dozens of instances, with the help of the IDF Manpower Directorate commander, in which gaps were discovered between the spirit of the command and its implementation on the ground,” said Muli Jesselson, head of the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, on Sunday.
“We have presented the difficulties in implementing the command to senior figures in the army and have helped prevent dozens of unnecessary conflicts,” he added.
Jesselson also said that the union has “warned of discrimination on the basis of sectoral background” in which “certain battalions have received a blanket exemption” for maintaining a beard among its soldiers, an allusion to the haredi Netzah Yehuda Battalion.
In response to the incident with the recruits in the Engineers Corp, the army said “the command and policies in the IDF is that growing a beard will be authorized only for someone who is religious or a soldier who had a beard before he enlisted. The command was instituted to ensure discipline in IDF units. The IDF has no intention of harming the feelings and lifestyles of its soldiers, religious and secular alike.”
The statement added that the commander of the Engineer Corp has now instructed the soldiers who have not already shaved to wait until he has completed his investigation into the incident.
According to a report on Army Radio, Eisenkot met with senior rabbis from the IDF Rabbinate on Sunday afternoon in a pre-arranged meeting, and the incident regarding the Engineer Corp soldiers was expected to be discussed.