IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, along with the haredi political leadership, have in an unusual step taken up the battle of the national- religious leadership against the transfer of the Jewish identity branch of the Military Rabbinate to the IDF Manpower Directorate.
The chief rabbis called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the transfer immediately, while Shas chairman Arye Deri, United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman and senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni held a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to try and forestall the transfer.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot authorized the transfer of the branch last month, to the chagrin of politicians and rabbis from the national-religious sector who saw the move as an attempt to secularize the army and make its educational focus more open to Jewish pluralism.
The Jewish identity branch of the IDF rabbinate was established in 2001 to “strengthen among soldiers and combat soldiers a fighting spirit and a sense of mission from the spiritual treasure of Jewish sources.”
It has been criticized, however, as being overly zealous in the dissemination of religious and nationalistic ideas and values to soldiers, and was transferred from the rabbinate over those concerns.
Lau and Yosef wrote to Netanyahu on Wednesday, arguing that the Jewish identity branch “serves all soldiers” in a “positive and welcome manner” and imparts to soldiers basic Jewish values.
“The natural place of the Jewish identity branch is in the IDF Rabbinate, which has the required expertise for imparting Jewish values and tradition in the best way possible,” the chief rabbis wrote in their letter to the prime minister.
The rabbis requested to meet with Netanyahu “urgently” to discuss the measure, which they said “is designed to weaken the transmission of Jewish values and tradition” and called on him to stop the transfer “immediately.”
“This would be a very destructive act for the IDF, its soldiers, and Jewish identity in the army,” the said.
Separately, Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah questioned Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan in the Knesset plenum as to whether or not the Defense Ministry was considering issuing a blanket exemption for haredi soldiers to be allowed not to wear their uniforms on public transport when on leave from the army.
In order to receive free transport, soldiers must wear be in uniform when using public transport, unless they have specific permission to be in civilian clothes.
Haredi soldiers frequently request exemptions to wearing the uniform when going home, since they are often subjected to verbal harassment by people in the haredi community who oppose haredi enlistment in the IDF.
In recent years there have been several incidents in which uniformed haredi soldiers were physically abused when entering haredi neighborhoods where they live or pray.
Shelah cited comments attributed to Ya’alon in several haredi media outlets saying that he was considering issuing a blanket exemption.
The MK, who is against a blanket exemption, alleged that the government had “no policies of support for haredi soldiers and no respect for the basic values of military service. ״ Ben-Dahan said, however, that the IDF did not intend to grant a blanket exemption, but would continue to grant the requests of individual soldiers not to wear uniform on public transport and continue to get free public transport.
“We attribute great importance to traveling in uniform and the pride that accompanies it, and we are also attentive to the specific problems of haredi soldiers and are dealing with this accordingly,” said Ben-Dahan.
According to a leading haredi proponent of haredi enlistment, verbal harassment of haredi soldiers in uniform happens on a weekly or even daily basis.
“It’s very unpleasant to walk around in your neighborhood and be concerned that at any moment someone might start harassing you,” the source said.
He said that it was preferable for soldiers to wear their uniforms, but that it was vital to allow them the option if they need it to give them an exemption. He felt, however, that a blanket exemption would be a mistake.