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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Keep your fundamentalist hands off the IDF!

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Upon making aliyah more than 30 years ago, there were many uniquely Israeli phenomena I had to get used to. One of them occurred Saturday afternoons during the summer. Strolling in any town or city, you’d hear a popular radio show bellowing from every second home. Appropriately named Shirim veSha’arim (Songs and Goals), it broadcast soccer games from stadiums around the country. Almost everyone’s favorite announcer was Zoher Bahalul, an Israeli Arab with wonderfully descriptive Hebrew. He was the Foster Hewitt of Israeli soccer.

Saturday afternoon soccer is a thing of the past, another victim of a worrying trend toward Jewish fundamentalism that’s sweeping through this country.

There are many examples of these developments within Israeli society, but having spent almost 25 years in the Israel Defence Forces, I’m finding it particularly troubling to learn of some of the changes occurring within this most integrative of Israeli institutions.

The last decade or so has seen a surge in the number of middle- and upper-echelon officers coming from religious backgrounds. These men, who have mostly grown up in the national religious public school system, are now leading combat brigades and battalions and have replaced the kibbutzniks as the IDF’s fighting backbone. They are highly motivated, intelligent and very Zionistic. A true blessing. But their preponderance is beginning to affect the military. 

During the last few years, an ongoing conflict has been seething between the IDF’s Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate. According to the army’s website, the former is tasked with teaching soldiers “values the IDF and Israeli society wish the youth to emulate; the tradition and history of the Jewish nation, battle history of the IDF, military unit history,” while the latter’s military rabbis “are responsible for providing all religious needs for soldiers serving in their units.”

Things came to head during Operation Cast Lead two years ago, when military rabbis accompanying the troops entering Gaza provided them with moral and spiritual support before they went into battle. That would seem appropriate, but some of this encouragement came in the form of communal prayers, where entire units were required to participate, and the distribution of questionable Military Rabbinate documents in which soldiers were told, for instance, that “[there is] a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimeter of [the Land of Israel] to gentiles,” and that “when you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral.”

Since then, a debate has continued within and outside the IDF about the Military Rabbinate’s role and who should be instilling soldiers with values, Jewish or otherwise. It’s clear to me the rabbinate should go back to its core responsibility of providing IDF units with religious services, much like the Military Advocate General’s Corps, in which I served, provides the IDF with legal services.

As for values, leave them to the Education Corps. It runs courses and workshops exposing military personnel to divergent opinions on many of the complex issues faced by soldiers and Israelis in general. These programs broaden knowledge without towing particular political or religious ideologies, something that can no longer be said about the rabbinate’s course of action.

The prevalence of Orthodox officers and the Military Rabbinate’s growing influence is affecting other aspects of the military milieu, particularly in gender-related issues.

In 1995, Alice Miller, a young woman bent on becoming an air force pilot, successfully challenged the IDF in the courts, forcing it to allow women to compete for places in pilot training programs. Ever since, military tasks, including some combat positions, have increasingly opened for women. In June of this year, Orna Barbivai became the first woman to be promoted to major general, as head of the IDF’s human resources branch.

But recently, ominous winds of change have emerged. Orthodox soldiers, supported by their rabbis, are disobeying orders to attend army events at which women sing. Female soldiers who danced separately at military Simchat Torah festivities were forced to move into a fenced-off enclosure so men could not see them. And most alarmingly, a special committee’s report on how to better integrate women into the military has inexplicably been shelved.

I can live without Saturday afternoon soccer, but the IDF is too important – to security, but no less essentially as the great equalizer in Israeli society. 

Rabbis: keep your fundamentalist hands off Tzahal!

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