A letter of encouragement written by an IDF commander in the Givati Brigade to his soldiers containing several biblical references and religious overtones has generated condemnation from secularist groups and support from senior public officials, including Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan.
First published by news website NRG, Col. Ofer Winter sent a letter to soldiers under his command, who are now stationed close to Gaza and could be deployed in the event of a ground invasion of Gaza, saying that it was a great merit to be in the vanguard of a fight against “the terrorist enemy that dares to curse, blaspheme and scorn the God of Israel.”
Winter said the brigade should accept the mission upon itself with humility and be prepared to give up their lives “to protect our families, our people and our homeland.”
He continued, “I look up to the heavens and I read with you ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,’” quoting the Shema prayer recited twice a day in the Jewish liturgy.
“The Lord, the God of Israel, make our path on which we go successful, as we are poised to fight for your people Israel against an enemy that abuses your name. In the name of the fighters of the IDF and in particular the brigade and the commanders, may the verse be fulfilled for us that ‘the Lord your God goes with you to fight for you with your enemies to save you,’ and we will say ‘Amen.’ Together and only together we will win.”
Mickey Gitzin, the head of the Israel Be Free secularist movement, criticized Winter’s letter, saying his words turned the conflict into a religious war.
“IDF commanders should also remember that the IDF is the national army, not a religious militia, and therefore he needs to include everyone who serves in the IDF, haredim, national-religious, secular, Jews and non-Jews, and to refrain from the kind of terminology he used,” Gitzin said.
The director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, also weighed in, saying that Winter had involved religion in military affairs and that his superior officers should remind him of the required separation between the two.
In response to the criticism, however, Ben-Dahan, of Bayit Yehudi, issued a public statement of support for Winter, saying those attacking the officer were from the radical Left.
“It looks like there’s no cure for self-hatred,” Ben-Dahan quipped. “The words of Col. Winter were written with true humility that is appropriate and proper for the heroes of Israel who do not glorify in their own strength but know that there are forces beyond them and seek their help.”
Shas MK Eli Yishai also spoke out in support of Winter, praising him for his call for divine help in battle.
“The expression ‘with God’s help’ is an expression of faith and trust, and it is the right of everyone to support and be supported by focusing on his faith,” Yishai wrote on his Facebook page.
“I’m sorry that at a time when the entire Jewish people stands before the enemy, there are organizations that seek to promote strife and contention. With the help of God, we will be victorious.”
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin weighed in, too, saying that “radical NGOs” were attacking Winter and that “Winter knows that his soldiers are representative of Israeli society, the great majority of which is closely connected to its Jewish identity and faith in differing degrees of religious practice.”