Religious soldiers file complaint over treatment

In letter to comptroller, association says religious rights have been infringed upon in officers' training course.

Religious haredi IDF soldiers praying 521 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Religious haredi IDF soldiers praying 521 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Association for the Torah-Observant Soldier has submitted a complaint to the state comptroller protesting the treatment of religious soldiers at the IDF’s Officer Training School.
In a letter sent to the office of Micha Lindenstrauss on Sunday morning, the association listed a series of events that have occurred at the training school’s base in recent months which they say illustrates a pattern of frequent infringement upon the religious rights of observant Jewish soldiers.
A source within the IDF told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that the claims “ridiculous.”
“These are old incidents that have already been investigated by the commander of the Officers Training Course, he said.
Referring to an incident in May 2011 that led to the dismissal of two cadets from the IDF training course, the source said, “The soldiers refused an order because of their personal opinions and, contrary to what has been claimed by the cadets, their dismissal cannot be attributed to any supposed failure by the IDF to abide by religious sensitivities.”
However MK Ya’acov Katz, chairman of the National Union, accused the IDF of trying to prevent national-religious soldiers from becoming officers.
“It will not be possible to prevent the finest community in the country, the ultra- Orthodox and the national-religious, from flooding into the IDF,” Katz said.
“The ongoing abuse toward soldiers wearing yarmulkas, which is caused by incitement and jealousy, does not represent the friendly atmosphere within the IDF and will only strengthen our youth who are the cream of the nation,” Katz continued.
According to data from the IDF Manpower Directorate released in November, 42 percent of cadets in the most recent training course were from the national-religious sector.
Eliyahu Lax, the association’s chairman, told the Post on Monday that the organization was calling on the IDF to fire the commander of the training school base.
In one incident which the complaint details, two religious cadets at the training school were expelled for disobeying orders and going to pray.
According to the Association for the Torah-Observant Soldier, the chairman of which is the father of one of the soldiers, the cadets were participating in a night-time orienteering exercise with their Gefen Brigade (part of the Gaza Division). After completing the exercise at 5:30 a.m., the cadets were informed that they would be woken up at 11:30 a.m.
Three religious soldiers from the unit decided that they would get up at 10:30 for the morning prayer service.
According to the claims, the course staff, without informing the soldiers, then brought forward the waking time to 10:30, to fit in an extra lesson, and when the soldiers woke up and asked for time to pray, their commanders refused.
Two of the cadets went to pray regardless of the instructions, before the mandated time for morning prayers ended. They were subsequently brought before the expulsion committee of the course, which dismissed them for disobeying orders.
According to the IDF source who spoke with the Post, the soldiers were told that the lesson would only last 20 minutes, after which they would be given time to pray. The source added that there were 82 other religious soldiers on the course who went to the lesson and prayed afterward.
Zvulun Orlev, an MK from the national-religious Bayit Hayehudi party, said on Monday that it was unacceptable that the IDF should not allocate time for soldiers to pray.
“Prayer can be pushed off only for war, operational duties or emergencies,” Orlev said. “I am calling on the chief of staff and the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate to change the atmosphere and create a more accommodating environment to allow national-religious and haredi soldiers to serve in combat units while preserving their religious lifestyle.”
Eliyahu Lax, chairman of the Association for Religious Solders, told the Post the organization was calling on the army to fire the commander of the Officers Training Base, Col. Eran Niv.
Lax did point out, however, that after he turned to Niv, time for prayer has been allocated, although Lax insisted that other problems relating to religious sensitivities remain and that Orthodox soldiers at the Officers Training Base feel that the commanders there are trying to force them to abandon their religious principles.
The association’s complaint asks that the state comptroller look into the matter and present suggestions for clearer definitions of what constitutes orders, rights and obligations.
In September, four cadets from the Officer’s Training School were expelled after they left, without permission, a ceremony in which women were singing, something generally prohibited by Jewish law.
The soldiers refused to return to the event hall after being instructed to do so by their commanding officer.
The incident created a national furor and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz issued a directive in January that all soldiers, regardless of their religious observance, were obligated to attend all official army events, even if they include women singing.
Religious soldiers may, however, be exempted from such events which are merely for entertainment.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office said in response that “the events in question at the Officers Training Course were investigated by the commander, lessons were learnt and guidelines defining the rights of religious soldiers in relation to prayer times were distributed to the entire team of commanders. Regarding the letter [from the Association for Religious Soldiers], the office of the base commander has not received it, nor has the office of the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate. When it is received, it will be fully answered.”