(photo credit: Courtesy)
Maintaining an Israeli military presence in Judea and Samaria to protect Jewish lives is completely justified and overrides the concerns over Palestinian suffering, according to OC Chaplaincy Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronzki.
"Our presence in Judea and Samaria is a case where one value, the value of Jewish life, takes precedence over another value, which is the prevention of Palestinian suffering," says Ronzki, who has a rich military past in addition to his rabbinic training.
The IDF Spokesperson's Office maintains that Ronzki's comments were referring solely to Israel's military presence, not to Jewish settlements as reported earlier in Tuesday's edition of The Jerusalem Post.
Ronzki, who met with The Jerusalem Post last week in his office at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, was appointed OC Chaplaincy in the summer of 2006, when relations between the settler population and the IDF command were at an all-time low.
Less than a year had passed since implementation of the disengagement plan; religious Zionism was smarting from the theological implications of the dismantling of settlements, and the territorial compromises seemed to contradict the belief among religious Zionists that the Jewish people were steadily progressing toward redemption - from statehood in 1948 to expansion in 1967 - that would inevitably lead to the Messianic era.
Even worse for the religious Right, was the idea that the IDF, the ultimate symbol of modern Jewish sovereignty, had been used to expel Jews from the Holy Land.
Many rabbis had openly called on religious soldiers to disobey IDF orders to help dismantle settlements.
Ronzki, in contrast, had the rare attribute of being a hard-core settler, high-ranking soldier and respected rabbi who openly opposed military insubordination.
Former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern decided Ronzki was perfect for the job.
Ronzki's close ties with settler youth as a rabbi and an educator, coupled with his extensive combat experience, tipped the scales in his favor for the post.
He was a role model who proved religion, settlement fervor and military service were not mutually exclusive, but complemented one another.
Ronzki, a resident of Itamar, a settlement in Samaria overlooking Nablus, refuses to say how he would react if the IDF were once again saddled with the job of dismantling settlements.
"I don't want to talk about hypothetical questions," he says.
But Ronzki admits that for him, Halacha takes precedence over the IDF code of ethics.
"It is clear that a man of faith is obligated first and foremost to adhere to God's commandments," he says. "Someone who does not understand that does not understand what it is to be religious. But I can tell you that in my entire military career as a soldier, an officer and a commander, I do not remember even once that there was a contradiction between army service and Halacha."
Ronzki's comments about the moral justification of military presence in Judea and Samaria came days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced in Annapolis, Maryland, that Israel was prepared for significant and painful territorial compromises.
If Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas manage to implement on the ground what they have already agreed to verbally, Ronzki might find himself providing spiritual support to his own family, friends and neighbors as they are evacuated from their homes in Judea and Samaria as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
But Ronzki says Olmert's declarations in Annapolis do not worry him.
"Even though, as a resident of Itamar, I could in theory be affected by what is happening in Annapolis, I did not even listen to the news broadcasts," he says. "All they are doing is talking, just talking."
Among his numerous combat posts, Ronzki also served as commander of IDF forces in the Samaria region, where a large Palestinian population resides.
"Obviously, the fact that we have a moral right to be in Judea and Samaria does not exempt us from doing everything in our ability to reduce the number of roadblocks when possible, and adopting other methods that lessen Palestinian suffering," he says. "But protecting lives on this side of the Green Line necessitates that we remain in Judea and Samaria.
"Already for more than two years now, there haven't been any terrorist attacks inside the Green Line, because we are inside the Palestinian cities foiling terrorist attempts."
Despite his conviction that Israel is perfectly justified in maintaining settlements in Judea and Samaria, Ronzki says he has sympathy for the suffering of his Palestinian neighbors.
"I feel bad when I travel to and from my home in Itamar and I pass through the 'express' lane reserved for Jews," he says. "Sometimes there are terrible traffic jams; dozens of cars and trucks backed up and forced to wait for hours at a time. Or there are small trucks that belong to farmers whose produce is sitting in the sun spoiling.
"But at the same time, I am very aware of the military justification for it. The IDF is constantly catching people trying to transport arms and ammunition, all the time. So you can't just do away with the roadblocks."
However, Ronzki says, "as commander of IDF forces in the Samaria region, I did what I could to alleviate Palestinian suffering. We put up roofing that would provide shade for people waiting at the roadblocks so they would not have to sit out in the sun. We would try to supply people with water. And to this day, when I see a lot of traffic at the roadblocks, I call headquarters - they all know me - and I ask them to send in more soldiers to process people faster.
"The same is true when it comes to breaking into people's [Palestinians'] homes to look for wanted terrorists. The nature of the operation entails use of force and the element of surprise in order to minimize danger to soldiers. You've got to move in quickly, breaking down the door and scaring people in the house. It causes terrible trauma to the children.
"At the same time, if you have intelligence information on someone who is about to perpetrate a terrorist attack, you are obligated to stop him. Having a presence in Judea and Samaria allows us to enter Palestinian towns when necessary to make arrests.
"In the big picture, it is definitely moral to monitor people, arrest suspects, put up roadblocks... because all these things protect Jewish lives."
Ronzki founded and heads Itamar's yeshiva for post-high school students.
About half of the 170 students enroll in a five-year hesder program that combines a year-and-a-half of army service (instead of the mandatory three years) with the remainder devoted to Jewish studies. The other half of the students end up enlisting in regular IDF service after devoting a year or two to Torah studies.
In an interview with Yediot Aharonot shortly after he was appointed the IDF's chief rabbi, Ronzki said modern secular Zionism was morally bankrupt and religious Zionists represented Israel's new ideological elite.
In a sense, Ronzki's life story is a protest against secular Zionism. A few years after the Yom Kippur War, during which he served on the Egyptian front as a company commander under Ariel Sharon, Ronzki abandoned his secular upbringing and, together with his wife Ronit, whom he met in the army, embraced religious Zionism.
He studied at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva with Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim. He helped establish Elon Moreh and later Itamar, where he settled and raised six children. Two of his married daughters live in Itamar.
Ronzki is convinced that a strong Jewish identity goes hand-in-hand with a strong military. He says the main reason he accepted the job as OC Chaplaincy is because he wants to have an impact on secular soldiers.
"I want the Torah and Judaism to be part of every soldier in the IDF," he says. "Increasing Jewish consciousness is where the IDF rabbinate is devoting most of its energies. We organize lectures, classes, events, all sorts of things to increase soldiers' awareness of their Jewish heritage. That is the reason I came to the IDF rabbinate. I am not here to serve the religious soldiers. I am here to reach the entire IDF - all the soldiers, secular especially."
The breathtaking success of religious soldiers in the IDF is proof for Ronzki that religious faith combined with a robust Zionism is an unbeatable combination.
"Just look at the rise in religious representation in the IDF command," he says. "I do not know if people are completely aware of the revolution taking place.
"I spend a lot of my time traveling around meeting with combat soldiers. You come to units today, and all of the officers are religious - from the battalion commanders to the company, platoon and squad commanders. You could set up yeshivot in those units.
"I personally think that we are facing challenges that are forcing us to do some serious soul-searching. We are being forced to discover who we are, what we are doing here and what our purpose is in the world. Are we here to breathe the air, to eat good food, to simply exist? That is the question of questions."
Asked what, in his opinion, the Jewish people living in Israel are supposed to be, Ronzki says: "We are supposed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We are here to be a light unto the nations, in all ways - morally, socially, spiritually and value-wise; a nation that is engaged in all aspects of running a sovereign state economically, militarily and politically."
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