IDF slams ‘interference’ of external rabbis, lobbyists over religious issues in army

One issue in particular that has roused the ire of some rabbis in the religious-Zionist community is the recent decision to tighten regulations on exemptions to growing a beard.

December 22, 2016 18:24
3 minute read.
Netzah Yehuda Battalion

IDF soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Haredi infantry battalion are seen during their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The IDF Manpower Directorate has sharply criticized the interference by civilian rabbis and lobbying groups in religious issues arising within the army, namely over the issue of new regulations for soldiers growing beards.

The issue has aroused the ire of some rabbis in the religious- Zionist community, who see the recent decision to tighten regulations for the issuing of an exemption to grow a beard as designed to weaken the authority of the IDF Rabbinate.

At the beginning of December, the then head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj.-Gen Hagai Topolansky, met with a controversial new religious organization called Tzav Ehad that was established to receive and address complaints of religious soldiers in the IDF who believe their rights have been infringed by the army.

The group began receiving complaints from soldiers, including one incident in which it claimed that 52 religious soldiers were required to shave their beards.

Following the meeting, the directorate issued a letter to the IDF chief rabbi, saying that complaints that Tzav Ehad receives will be passed on to the IDF Rabbinate for it to deal with, and that further meetings would be between the organization and the IDF.

However, The Jerusalem Post has learned that the meeting was not coordinated with other senior command ranks in the IDF, and that there was significant disquiet with the development.

In a letter of clarification obtained by the Post, the head of Topolansky’s office subsequently wrote to the senior IDF command stating that Topolansky had told officials in Tzav Ehad that “it is not their job to deal with soldiers’ problems in the IDF, and that any complaints should be passed to the IDF Rabbinate for them to deal with, and this was what was agreed.”

Topoloansky underlined the importance of “empowering the IDF Rabbinate from a halachic perspective” and its position as the only authority to issue halachic decisions to soldiers.

“The head of the IDF Manpower Directorate said to members of the organization that the interference of rabbis outside of the army regarding what happens inside the army weakens and harms the IDF chief rabbi and the standing of the IDF rabbinate,” the letter also noted.

Relations between the IDF and the religious-Zionist community have been strained of late, following the extraction of the Jewish Identity Branch from the IDF Rabbinate to the Education Corps, the new beard protocol, and concerns over the possible integration of women into the Tank Corps, which religious-Zionist rabbis strongly oppose.

Efforts are now under way to issue a revised beard protocol that will make it easier to gain an exemption on religious grounds to grow a beard.

The letter of clarification from the Manpower Directorate states that the IDF Rabbinate will define “clear criteria” for IDF rabbis in the field, who be able to recommend the issuance of an exemption on religious grounds, although IDF commanders will still have the final say.

The previous iteration of the beard protocol gave the Adjutant Corps and not the IDF Rabbinate the authority to make such recommendations, leading to outrage from religious-Zionist leaders.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, who was involved in efforts to change the new beard protocol along with the Union of Hesder Yeshivas, has welcomed the proposed changes.

“During the last year I worked together with the IDF to bring about a situation in which the protocol will be clarified to all commanders,” said Ben Dahan.

“There is no doubt that the [previous] protocol was interpreted by a number of commanders differently than what was intended by the senior IDF command.

Therefore it is good that is updating the protocol in order that in the future mistakes and aggravation can be avoided as has happened over the last year.”

Amihai Eliyahu, head of Tzav Ehad, said in response, ״There is no doubt that the office of the IDF Manpower Directorate got cold feet, because of the desire of all different types of bodies who instead of helping religious soldiers are trying to get credit… The Union of Hesder Yeshivas can get credit with great pleasure… Arguments within the camp do not contribute to the good of religious soldiers and I hope that this lack of responsibility will not harm the welcome process of creating trust with the heads of the security establishment.”

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