National-religious rabbis fume over removal of IDF ‘Jewish identity’ unit

Rontzki calls it ‘vote of no confidence’ in military rabbinate, says army’s chief rabbi should resign.

RELIGIOUS SOLDIERS pray near the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
RELIGIOUS SOLDIERS pray near the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.
Senior figures in the national- religious community have condemned a decision by the military Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gadi Eisenkot to transfer the Jewish identity branch of the IDF Rabbinate to the control of the IDF Manpower Directorate.
The decision was approved on Monday despite the efforts of senior figures within Bayit Yehudi to prevent the transfer.
Originally the Jewish identity branch was to be placed under the Education Corps, however Eisenkot gave the head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Hagai Topolansky, responsibility over the unit.
The Jewish identity branch was established in 2001 and was designed to “strengthen among soldiers and combat soldiers a fighting spirit and a sense of mission from the spiritual treasure of Jewish sources.”
However, the department has been the focus of controversy for several years, following accusations that it was overly zealous in the dissemination of religious and nationalistic ideas and values to soldiers.
The Education Corps of the IDF has sought to wrest control over the issue of Jewish identity from the IDF rabbinate, seeing it as overstepping its boundaries and advancing a specifically Orthodox perspective.
Speaking on Army Radio, Avihai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the IDF, denounced the decision and said that current IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz should resign his position due to the transfer.
“This is an expression of no-confidence in the IDF Rabbinate [saying] that it cannot provide oversight for its content and carry out its operations as it has done until now,” said Rontzki.
“If I were in the position of the IDF chief rabbi, I would have given up the keys. It’s not obligatory to continue to serve in the army,” Rontzki added.
Rontzki was instrumental in bolstering the influence of the Jewish identity branch during his tenure as IDF chief rabbi between 2006 and 2010.
During Operation Cast lead in December 2008 and January 2009, the Jewish identity branch disseminated leaflets to soldiers telling them not to show mercy to the enemy. The leaflets also included political and religious exhortations, such as not to give up even a millimeter of the land of Israel.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the most senior and respected national-religious rabbis, also condemned Monday’s decision. He blamed the decision on the Haaretz newspaper, which has published several investigative reports on the activities of the Jewish identity branch.
“I am greatly saddened that the chief of staff, who I greatly appreciate, has acted regarding the Jewish identity branch according to the dictates of a newspaper for which anything connected to Judaism is like thorns in its eyes,” said Druckman.
The rabbi said that the IDF Rabbinate has dealt with the issue of Jewish identity since the establishment of the army and that transferring the branch to the IDF Manpower Directorate was a blow to the IDF Rabbinate and to soldiers in general.
In a letter by Eisenkot to IDF commanders, the IDF chief of staff explained why he made the decision to move the branch.
“We must preserve our image and our actions within the core of Israeli consensus,” wrote Eisenkot.
“We have reached an understanding that a change in the current processes are required with a focus on preserving the IDF as the army of the state, in a democratic state, and one that encourages enlistment for all.”
The chief of staff said that the field of identity and “Jewish- Israeli consciousness” would be an inseparable part of the education program of all army units.
“It is your duty to imbue to those under your command the obligation to obey the laws of the state and to act in accordance with the spirit of the IDF while forging a Jewish-Israeli identity, in accordance with the foundational principles of our state,” Eisenkot concluded.