Knesset rejects appointing Muslims chaplains in IDF

Many imams refuse to preside over fallen Beduin.

beduin tracker 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
beduin tracker 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On November 26, 2002 IDF soldier Halil Tahar was killed while clearing mines on Mount Dov. Many Israelis would say Tahar, 27, a Beduin from Akko deserved a hero's funeral. But in Israel's volatile religious climate of clashing loyalties, things are not so simple. Muslims and Jews may share common citizenship but sometimes one man's hero is another's traitor. Akko's imams refused to preside over Tahar's funeral. Some candidly expressed their opinion that Tahar was a traitor and did not deserve a Muslim funeral. Others indirectly declined to participate saying they had made previous arrangements and could not attend. After several agonizing days, Nazir Fadli, a local educator, took it upon himself to preside over the funeral and say the customary prayers for the dead. Tahar is not alone. According to a respected Beduin sheikh from the Negev who works with Zaka, the rescue and recovery organization, dozens of Beduin soldiers killed in action have suffered Tahar's fate. They too were not given the respect they deserved because most imams refuse to preside over the funeral and the IDF has no Muslim chaplain. "It makes me very sad that the State of Israel refuses to appoint a Muslim chaplain," said the sheikh who noted that he identifies with Zaka's sacred duty of honoring the dead but preferred to remain anonymous. All Muslim IDF soldiers are Beduins. The Sheikh said that 152 Beduin soldiers have been killed in action. The sheikh has personally presided over dozens of funerals of Beduin soldiers killed in action over the past few decades, including cases where imams have refused to preside. "These imams put themselves in God's place and decide that the poor soldier and his family are traitors to the Palestinian people and do not deserve the respect of a proper religious burial," said the sheikh. This week, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee torpedoed a bill by MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) and MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) that would have created official Muslim chaplain positions within the IDF. Cohen said the legislation was designed to solve the problem of extremist imams. "There are 145 Jewish chaplains," said Cohen. "Why can't there be at least one Muslim [chaplain]?" Cohen claimed that IDF Chaplain Brig.-Gen. Yisrael Weiss was afraid of encroachment on his monopoly of religious services. Therefore, Weiss convinced MK Shlomo Benizri (Shas) and MK Uri Ariel (National Union) to oppose the bill, Cohen alleged. "His attitude toward minority religions is condescending," said Cohen of Weiss. "Plus he is afraid that opening the IDF to other religions is a Pandora's box that is liable to undermine his power." However, Benizri said his opposition had nothing to do with Weiss. "High-ranking IDF officers told me that it was inadvisable to appoint a Muslim chaplain for several reasons. They told me there is a real fear that an imam would incite Muslim soldiers against the State of Israel. "Also, the vast majority of Muslim leaders believe it is prohibited to join the IDF. So those who do join are secular and do not need religious services anyway." While Benizri admitted that the Tahar incident was unfortunate, he added that the IDF has learned its lesson and has made fundamental changes. Those who want a traditional burial, but are denied one by local imams are provided one via informal channels. Abass Zakor, spokesman for the Islamic Movement in Israel, defended the behavior of imams who refused to conduct funeral services for Muslim IDF soldiers. "That soldier did not listen to the imam when he joined the IDF, so why is he coming to him now?" asked Zakor rhetorically. "The Islamic Movement is opposed to Muslims serving in the IDF as long as the war against the Palestinian people continues," added Zakor. "We do not oppose volunteering in a civilian capacity. But it is prohibited to join the IDF and fight against your own people." Zakor concurred that the vast majority of imams refuse to preside over the funeral of a fallen Muslim IDF soldier. However, there are a few imams who agree to conduct funeral services. Sheikh Ahmad Abed Ilwehab Hassan, one of two official imams in Shfaram, who receives a salary from the state, said that unlike imams who belong to the Islamic Movement, he prays for fallen Muslim IDF soldiers. "Many argue that since he fought his own people he is not entitled to a religious burial. I disagree. I cannot judge someone even if he disregards Muslim law." Hassan said that a Muslim IDF chaplaincy would be a controversial position to hold. "An imam that has his own congregation could not accept such a position because his flock would oppose him. It would have to be an imam who does nothing but provide religious services to the IDF." Although the vast majority of Israeli Muslims respect the prohibition against serving in the IDF, many Beduin, who are also Muslims, do not. According to Hassan, this is because Beduins are poorer and use the IDF as a springboard for economic integration. Also, they tend to be itinerate, which means they are less connected to a particular piece of land. The IDF responded to a query regarding its religious policy, "The IDF provides religious services to both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers on a regular basis via the IDF Rabbinate. Relevant arrangements are anchored in IDF directives. In addition, a recommendation is being advanced in chief-of-staff directives that would solve various aspects that have not been solved fully so far by existing IDF directives. "This week, the IDF presented to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee developments on the issue of religious services to IDF soldiers. MKs expressed their satisfaction with the treatment of the subject and IDF actions on the matter. They were also satisfied with the new directives being advanced. "In light of this, the committee decided not to advance the private bill that was drafted on the subject."