The rabbis and the army
Op-ed: Appointment of regimental rabbis reminiscent of Soviet army indoctrination
"The admission of religion into combat regiments is growing." I did not read this report on a Hezbollah website or in a statement issued by the Iranian military. I read it on the IDF's official website, on a page that features news from the army's magazine, BaMahane.
As it turns out, in the framework of a new IDF Rabbinate plan, a regimental rabbi will be appointed for every IDF combat regiment. The appointments will be made next month. The rabbis will be reserve soldiers. They will accompany combatants during training sessions and operational activity.
The plan was first tested in the IDF's Northern Command. The Command's Rabbi, Lieutenant Colonel Binyamin Makhlouf, told the reporter that "the commander of Golani Regiment 51 goes nowhere without the regimental rabbi."
Assuming that Regiment 51 goes nowhere without its commander, we can understand the new deployment procedures in one of the IDF's most glorious regiments: First the rabbi, then the commander, and then the regiment. Tell me who leads you, and I'll tell you where you're standing.
During Operation Cast Lead, I happened to observe the briefing of a combat regiment about to enter the southern Gaza Strip. The officers repeated the mission's details, the targets, and battle procedures. When they finished, the military rabbi embarked on an enthused religious speech, on behalf of God.
Gradually, the preparations, which in the past were dedicated to eating what was left of the battle rations and for a little rest, turned into a voodoo ritual. In another regiment, so I have been told, the rabbi went even further and blessed each soldier personally by placing his palm on the troops' head.
I've been told that in recent years the IDF Rabbinate made an effort to remove haredi rabbis, who received a lieutenant general rank, a car and a salary, lived like parasites, and embittered the lives of soldiers with strictness in matters of kashrut and Shabbat. They were replaced with national religious officers, some of them former combat soldiers, who have less interest in religious coercion and more interest in uniting the ranks. This is good news.
The problem is that these officers have missionary aspirations and a political agenda. The previous officers were a nuisance. The new ones are a dangerous nuisance.
In the Soviet army, every unit had a so-called politruk – a political officer on behalf of the Communist Party. His role was to brainwash the soldiers with propaganda and reeducate them. In this hierarchy, the politruk was usually above the military commander. The rabbis who are about to be issued for IDF units are the new politruks.
Yes, the percentage of national-religious soldiers in combat units is higher than it was in the past. Yes, today they tend more than others to go for a military career. Their dedication is impressive; their contribution is significant.
They have many privileges, yet there is one right they do not have: Turning the IDF from the people's army to a nationalistic, religious, rightist-messianic military. After all, this is the Israel Defense Force, not God's army.
The responsibility for this issue is born by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. When the dispute over the Yizkor prayer emerged, the army chief rushed to set up a committee. The real objective was to buy time. It was achieved. In any case, not much can be done: The "religionization" of the military ceremony has been determined years ago, and conquered land is hard to free.
However, Gantz can stop the deterioration. IDF regiments do not need politruks – they need good commanders, solid training, and functioning weapons. They need fewer zealous speeches and more capabilities on the ground; less hate propaganda and deeper familiarity with the rules of engagement.
The entire notion of an IDF Rabbinate is mistaken. The army chief would have done well if instead of a chief IDF rabbi he would have appointed a chief religion rabbi. Just like the chief artillery officer is responsible for artillery, the chief religion officer would be responsible for religious services. His job would be to provide religious services to any soldier who seeks them, and there are many fine troops who seek this. There should have no interest in educating all the rest, indoctrinating them, pushing soldiers to become religious, or training them.
Benny Gantz cannot separate religion from the IDF. He has no mandate for this. Yet he can stop the politruk invasion into the army. There is no need to set up a committee: Just wake up on time.
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