MKs: Jewish Identity branch should not be in IDF rabbinate

“This is about character of the IDF, not just about the IDF rabbinate and the Jewish Identity department."

A religious woman and a female soldier pray at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A religious woman and a female soldier pray at the Western Wall.
Proponents of removing the army’s Jewish Identity department from the IDF rabbinate to the Education Corps hit back Monday against the national-religious leadership, which have condemned the step in recent weeks.
MKs Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) issued strong support for the step, as did senior reserve officers from the Education Corps.
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.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot decided in January to transfer the department out of the IDF Rabbinate to the control of the Education Corps, a step that prompted fierce opposition from the national- religious sector.
Azaria said Monday the goals of the department to reinforce a “fighting spirit and sense of mission” were general goals of the army and therefore should not be in what she called “a religious and sectoral” unit.
Azaria also noted that as long as the department was within the IDF rabbinate, female soldiers and officers would be prevented from leading the educational process.
“The attempt to turn one value of Jewish identity into that which will represent IDF soldiers cannot be allowed to pass, and is dangerous,” she continued.
“When we send young soldiers to defend the state with their bodies, they need to feel that their values are represented in the IDF. There are many values within Israeli society, and the Education Corps always included a wide range of these values. This is the national approach.”
Col. (res) Menashe Samira, who served in the Education Corps, also strongly backed the removal of the Jewish Identity department, saying it was vital to preserving the nature of the military.
“This is about the character of the IDF, not just about the IDF rabbinate and the Jewish Identity department. It’s about where we’re taking the army, which influences our defense but also Israeli society as a whole and helps mold it.”
He strongly praised Eisenkot for his decision, of which he denounced the department’s original establishment as “the original sin, which created division and confrontation,” and condemned the political pressure put on Eisenkot over the decision.
“We need to lead the IDF as the people’s army, which is obligated to its national missions, because this is the best way to guarantee a strong army, an army that is accepted by the public and a public that has faith in the army.”
Col. (res.) Rivka Balistara, also of the Education Corps, pointed to instances during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge when religion was invoked by commanders involved in the fighting, including a letter sent by brigade commander Col.
Ofer Winter who called in his letter on God to protect the soldiers fighting in Gaza.
“We are talking about defending the State of Israel, this is not a war of religion. I don’t want religion to be the driving force behind IDF soldiers,” said Balistara. “They are defending the security of the citizens in the state and the homeland. I have no problem if some soldiers believe it to be part of a holy war but this shouldn’t be taught to soldiers.”
She argued that such an approach would alienate secular soldiers who do not identify with any aspect of a religious war.
“We have to prevent this from happening, because if it does then fewer and fewer soldiers will identify with the motivations given for fighting, and we’ll get a situation in which secular soldiers will not want to join this kind of army.”
Stern, a former major-general and former head of the Manpower Directorate also gave his backing to Eisenkot’s decision, saying its natural place in the Education Corps.
“Yes, rabbis are an important part of teaching Judaism, and it is right that they have a part in this framework. Judaism, especially when it is in a hierarchical body like the IDF, cannot belong to only those who wear a yarmulke and tzitzit like I do,” said Stern.