Israel's military rabbis draw fire

Growing religious influence in the IDF alarms secular Israelis

Most Israelis expect their military rabbis to confine themselves to such tasks as making sure the army provides kosher food and respects the Sabbath. But lately, some of them are asserting their own idea of Jewish virtue at the risk of stepping into the country’s culture wars. Some critics worry that the rabbinate and its charismatic chief, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, are infusing a militant mix of Judaism and nationalism into a traditionally secular institution that embodies the Israeli consensus. On the Palestinian side, Islamic hard-liners already see their war with Israel through an uncompromising religious lens, and the rabbinate’s critics warn that the Jewish state must not follow suit and risk pushing the conflict closer to a zero-sum holy war. When Israeli soldiers massed on the Gaza border for the country’s offensive against Hamas militants six months ago, uniformed rabbis stood amid the tents and tanks, reciting prayers with the men as they prepared for battle. When the troops went into Gaza, Rontzki went in with them. That might not have seemed unusual, but some rabbis went further, distributing pamphlets that put the conflict firmly in religious terms. One suggested a parallel between today’s Palestinians and the Philistines, the biblical foes of the Israelites. Critics say it was in line with a pattern that goes against the heterogeneous nature of Israel’s conscript army. Although mostly Jewish, the Israel Defense Forces’ estimated 175,000 regular troops include some Muslim Arabs and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify as Christians. The military’s advocate-general is an Orthodox Jew, and the editor of its official magazine is openly gay. All soldiers have access to their own clergy and observe their religions’ holidays, though only Jewish chaplains wear uniforms and serve in the military rabbinate. Rontzki has been accused of speaking out against military service for women—he denies it—and after Bamahane, the army magazine, profiled a homosexual major, Rontzki wrote to several senior officers to protest. There is also the issue of rising Orthodox influence in the military’s combat units. Elite troops once came predominantly from the socialist kibbutz movement; today they are more likely to be people like Rontzki—skullcapped, seminary-educated and steeped in an ethos of national service, sacrifice and building settlements. Some estimates say a quarter of the troops now completing combat officers’ training are religious. However, skullcaps like the one worn by 57-year-old Ronzki are still rare among the top brass, who remain overwhelmingly secular.

The Associated Press