Think Again: Rabbi Levenstein’s important message

The young have noticed, even if the IDF has not, that no matter how many accolades the IDF garners for doing more than any army in history to protect civilians, our critics will never acknowledge it.

A soldier prays near the border with the Gaza Strip in July 2014 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A soldier prays near the border with the Gaza Strip in July 2014
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The recent week-long frenzy surrounding statements made by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein about homosexuals ignored two important points. First, the real subject of Levenstein’s 37-minute speech (of which the discussion of the homosexual societal agenda took at most three minutes) was the systematic de-Judaization of the IDF and its increasing inhospitality to religious soldiers and officers.
Second, he spoke from a purely defensive posture. He did not advocate the expulsion from the IDF of homosexuals or any other hostile action. Rather, he urged that religious soldiers and officers not be subjected to materials designed to convince them, to paraphrase the late Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, the Hazon Ish, that what the Torah proscribes under penalty of karet is really a beautiful love story. As an example, he gave an order that a group of pilots, including religious ones, paint a LGBT clubhouse, as part of their outreach to weaker sectors of the population.
On the former point, Levenstein pointed to the recent closure of the “Jewish identity” division of the IDF rabbinate. He charged that the IDF singles out officers who are too religious by asking questions such as, “Are you shomer negia?” i.e., observing prohibitions against physical contact between men and women.
One of the psychological exercises in an officers’ training course asks participants to divide themselves according to their views on civil marriage in Israel.
Has the IDF come to view religious soldiers and officers and religious motivations as a great danger rather than an asset? Certainly, the senior educational officer, who pronounced “the hilltop youth” – not Iran, not the 150,000 Hezbollah missiles aimed at Israel – as the greatest threat to the country, seems to think so.
The Hartman Institute’s Yaakov Kastel, personal adviser to outgoing chief educational officer Brig.-Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk, also thinks so. In the midst of Operation Protective Edge, he helped establish a non-profit to focus on the question of whether the IDF is a “holy army/army of Hashem [God] or an army of the state.” If before battle one reads prayers or biblical passages of the wars of Israel, he asked after Operation Cast Lead, “what chance is there that a soldier will act afterwards with purity of arms?” Officers serving in Judea and Samaria are advised not to speak of the area as the moledet (birthplace) of the Jewish people or about our rights to the Land.
ACCORDING TO Levenstein, the higher a religious officer climbs in the army, the more radical the agenda to which he is exposed. He (or she) will hear lectures on the Palestinian narrative (one wonders who teaches the Israeli/Jewish narrative in the PA, or to Hamas and Hezbollah). Kalman Libeskind, writing in Maariv, provides a long list of IDF educational lecturers who have called for boycotts of Judea and Samaria and the like. The vision of Israel as a multicultural, pluralistic “state of all its citizens,” not as the Jewish state, becomes increasingly prominent.
But even early in the military service, the 2016 IDF booklet on values includes subjects of no conceivable military import: women praying in tallitot and tefillin at the Kotel; egalitarian minyanim (prayer quorums); alternative kashrut certification.
Much of the IDF educational program serves to undermine any belief among recruits in the justness of Israel’s cause, or in the quality of Israeli democracy. It is as if American soldiers were taught American history from the point of the view of the Indians. In the words of the outgoing chief educational officer, the period prior to Operation Protective Edge – i.e. the period of searching for the three kidnapped and murdered yeshiva students – provided rich soil for revealing the racism towards Israeli Arabs. He also finds a great deal to fault in Israel’s treatment of the Beduin in the Negev.
Once the message of IDF trips to Auschwitz was that soldiers must do everything in their power to prevent another Auschwitz. Today the central message is that they must beware of becoming Nazis themselves – the same message expressed by Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan in his Remembrance Day speech.
THE PORTRAIT of current trends in the IDF painted by someone as deeply connected with the army as Levenstein is deeply disturbing on several grounds.
First, the desire to ensure the survival of the Jewish people has always been the most powerful motivating factor in the IDF, for religious and secular soldiers alike.
Asked for the basis of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, arch-secularist David Ben-Gurion held up the Bible. Furthermore, it was not the religious commander Ofer Vinter who first invoked God’s protection going into battle against a “treacherous enemy,” but OC Southern Command Gen. Yeshaya Gavish in 1967.
Reduce Israel to a “state of all its citizens” and those citizens will show as little interest in defending it as Europeans show today in defending themselves. Moreover, there is no replacement for the commitment and devotion to duty of the national religious community, which today makes up some 40 percent of the junior officer corps. The kibbutzim will not reclaim their historical role in providing combat commanders. Nor will the children of affluence, dreaming of making it big in hi-tech, pick up the baton.
By continually drumming into soldiers not the value of fulfilling the mission, but of showing restraint and caution at all times; holding up for emulation not Col.
Roi Klein, who threw himself on a grenade to save those under his command, while calling out “Shema Yisrael,” but rather an officer who remained against orders to keep Palestinians away from a possibly booby-trapped car and was stabbed to death by a terrorist for his efforts; stressing to officers the necessity of thinking “strategically” in terms of Israel’s international image, the IDF causes soldiers to wonder whether they are being asked to risk their lives not to defend their country but to advance a public relations campaign. And the young have noticed, even if the IDF has not, that no matter how many accolades the IDF garners for doing more than any army in history to protect civilian lives, our critics will never acknowledge it.
Finally, as Levenstein explicitly noted, the IDF has made clear that social values, such as equal service for women, trump any religious sensibilities of soldiers or officers. The resulting unreliability of IDF promises about gender separation and the reinforcement of haredi fears of being socialized to a foreign ideology will set back integration into the IDF greatly.
The good news, however, is that for all the obloquy hurled at him, Levenstein may have struck a nerve.
The surprise appointment of Brig.-Gen. Yehuda (Zvika) Fairaizen, a graduate of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, who comes from the air force and intelligence branches and not the Educational Corps, may signal a shift in direction for the IDF. We shall see. 
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.