New group for reporting religious problems in IDF established

Critics say organization is politically motivated and harmful to IDF.

Religious IDF soldiers pray near the Gaza border on July 23. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Religious IDF soldiers pray near the Gaza border on July 23.
A new organization called Tzav Ehad – whose stated purpose is to help religious soldiers seek redress in the IDF if they believe they have been asked to do something against their conscience and beliefs – has stirred controversy in the national-religious sector.
The group says it has “set itself the task of ensuring that all Jews are able to fulfill a Jewish lifestyle in the army,” and claims there have been hundreds of incidents in recent years in which soldiers have been forced to act in contravention of their religious practices.
According to a spokesman for the organization, Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu has assumed the directorship of Tzav Ehad; he is the son of the hardline Chief Rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu.
No other details about the group have been made available.
According to Tzav Ehad, in recent years there have been instances in which kosher food was not made available for religious soldiers, and incidents in which they were required to visit places and attend lectures “that go against their conscience.” In yet other instances they were instructed to shave their beards, and undertake similar tasks.
The organization’s website includes strongly worded accusations against the IDF, accusing it of “waging war against every religious soldiers who grows a beard,” and asking: “What’s the interest here? What’s the purpose? Doesn’t the IDF have anything else to do?” Such accusations are in reference to a recent controversy in which the IDF sought to tighten regulations for those requesting an exemption from shaving (Most IDF personnel are not permitted to grow a beard, although exemptions can be obtained by religious soldiers).
However, Tzav Ehad’s website says that it believes that the majority of such incidents occurred due to a lack of understanding and not through malice, and that the majority of problems will continue to be solved within the IDF.
The group said therefore that it will only deal with cases that are not resolved by the IDF itself, working with “the relevant officials” in the IDF, but added: “if necessary, we will bring these issues to state institutions and the public for a decision.”
Should religious soldiers encounter problems of the nature described by Tzav Ehad, they are able to report them via the organization’s website or by means of a hotline.
The organization added that it would utilize the media and legal avenues to defend the rights of religious soldiers.
Tzav Ehad was also established for the goal of encouraging a positive attitude of the army toward religious soldiers, the organization said in a statement.
“We are seeing signs of change in the direction of senior echelons within the IDF which are preventing soldiers from conducting a religious and traditional lifestyle for no justifiable reason. Our goal is to defend and assist these soldiers so they can continue to serve the Jewish people without harm to their religious and Jewish faith.”
The organization and its goals, however, have raised critical voices.
Shmuel Shetach, director of a national-religious lobbying group called Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, said that Tzav Ehad is greatly exaggerating concerns regarding religious life in the IDF, and argued that the military and its rabbinate are well equipped to deal with such issues.
Shetach also argued that the establishment of the organization is part of an effort by hardline elements within the national-religious community to demonstrate “a show of strength” against IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gadi Eisenkot after the Jewish Identity Branch, which was previously under the control of the IDF Chief Rabbinate, was transfered to the Education Corps earlier this year.
Rabbis and leaders of the conservative wing of the national-religious community fiercely opposed the transfer, which has embittered their relations with the IDF.
In addition, the army has recently issued a tender for Jewish educational institutions to conduct a course to educate officers on Jewish values, ethics and identity. The course has in the past been taught by the pluralist Hartman Institute and BINA, a secular organization.
The conservative leadership of the national-religious community is reportedly seeking to prevent the tender from being awarded to such groups again. Critics of Tzav Ehad believe that it was founded as a way to further pressure the IDF into preserving Orthodox influence in the military.
“We must support IDF commanders and its rabbis in giving the correct answer to our students and soldiers,” said NTA in response to the establishment of the new organization.
“As a religious-Zionist organization we call on the IDF to respect the beliefs and religious way of life of all its soldiers, but we protest against the phenomenon of blackening the army’s image on the pretext of religion,” the group continued, adding that “extremist groups” are trying to “harm the IDF and the unity of Israeli society.”
The Gesher religious tolerance advocacy group was also critical of Tzav Ehad, and said that while problems encountered during military service should be dealt with, “political and ideological struggles cannot be conducted on the backs of soldiers in the field.”
Gesher director Daniel Goldman said that the IDF rabbinate is the correct address for the kind of complaints Tzav Ehad has highlighted, adding: “We do not want to encourage a culture of denunciation among our soldiers, but rather an honest and appropriate dialogue conducted in a transparent manner.”