Holy war: army Rabbinate in charge now of IDF’s “fighting spirit” / PL exclusive

Posted: August 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, war | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »
bri-gen avichai rontzki, head of the army Rabbinate

bri-gen Avichai Rontzki, head of the army Rabbinate

The influence of radical Jewish thinking is spreading throughout the ranks of the IDF. The official IDF site is now stating that the role of the army Rabbinate – previously limited to providing the soldiers’ religious needs – includes now also a responsibility over the army’s “fighting spirit”.

The Rabbinate is providing on the army’s web site weekly lessons from the Torah portions, to be passed to the soldiers by the units’ Rabbis. These lessons include sometimes references to “holy war” and analogies between biblical battles and those of recent days.

This week’s lesson (“Ki Tezeh” portion), for example, includes the somewhat obscure instruction “to see the enemy for what it is” (my translation):

Going into war, it is very important to be aware that we are facing an enemy. The bible gives us several examples in which an enemy, having been beaten in battle, took advantage of the Israeli merciful heart, and deceived us into thinking that he has left his hatred towards us behind him… when the definition of the enemy as such is clear, one can carry out the mission in a determined way, and without much confusion.

I believe these words – published here for the first time – should be seen in the context of the debate over the IDF’s conduct in the operation Cast Lead, and maybe even in the larger sense of our relations with the Palestinians.

After operation Cast Lead, it was reveled that some publications which were handed to the soldiers at frontline units by the army Rabbinate included extreme nationalistic massages. One booklet even praised cruel behavior during war:

“When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. ‘A la guerre comme a la guerre.’

At the time, the army claimed that these publications did not represent the IDF’s values, and chief off staff Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the head of the Rabbinate, brigadier general Avichai Rontzky, to examine how did some of the political messages found their way to these booklets. Ashkenazy, however, didn’t fire Rontzki as some people demanded. The chief of staff – as well as other senior officers – even praised the head of the Rabbinate for sending his rabbis “to the frontlines” in the Gaza operation (during the fighting, it was reveled, some rabbis included in their lectures to the soldiers some extreme right-wing views and ideas, and there were even cases of ecstatic dances with torah books before entering the Gaza strip).

Ever since its founding in 1948, the military Rabbinate dealt mainly with the personal issues involved in maintaining a Jewish life in the army – such as keeping the army kitchens kosher and providing answers to everyday dilemmas, such as the duties of a soldier during the holy day of Shabbat. But ever since brigadier general Rontzki took over the Rabbinate, there is a growing tendency to introduce the radical Jewish though into the army, at all levels. Rontzki himself is one of the founders of Itamar, a settlement near Nablus known for the hard line ideology of its people and the regular confrontations with the Palestinians living in the area.

There is no doubt that the army is well aware of Rontzki’s views and actions (after all, they even made it to the NYT). Rontzki caused some more controversies in the last few months when he spoke against women and gays service in the army. His ideas regarding Jewish morality during battle are controversial even in today’s not-so-restrained-IDF. Recently, the army even forbade Rontzki from speaking in an academic panel on “morality in the battlefield”, fearing another scandal. But it seems that the IDF is more concerned with the PR damage done by Rontzki that with his actual messianic views. When the official IDF website is stating that morality and fighting spirit falls now under the jurisdiction if its Rabbinate, one can appreciate just how far we have gone with our holy war.

(thanks for Assaf S. for the link to the Rabbinate site)

4 Comments on “Holy war: army Rabbinate in charge now of IDF’s “fighting spirit” / PL exclusive”

  1. 1 Aviv said at 2:55 am on August 28th, 2009:

    1. What’s “exclusive” about a translated piece from the IDF website and a topic that’s been beaten to death in Israeli mainstream media?
    2. I agree this is somewhat worrisome, but the IDF has plenty of other offices writing to soldiers and commanders about more humanistic values, like the Education Corps. So essentially there’s a power struggle within the IDF over its religious and moral character and your blog post misrepresents it as a done-deal takeover by the wacko settlers.
    3. With all the nice pamphlets pointing in one religious or philosophical direction or another, the commanders still have to make strategic and tactical decisions, and these are governed by practical concerns and the political echelon’s directives, not by messianic fantasies.
    4. Compare and contrast with our neighbors. The secular ideologies like Arab Socialism or Nationalism as in Ba’ath or Fatah are dead men walking, while the Islamist likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard are on the rise. Can you say the same about Israel?

  2. 2 noam said at 4:27 am on August 28th, 2009:

    Aviv –
    I guess your bottom line is that “things are not so bad – and the Palestinians are worse”. This is a legitimate opinion, but it doesn’t change much regarding what I’ve written. The fact that the Fatah is dominated by Muslim hardliners could be true (I’m note so sure, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on the matter), but is this what should guide our thinking regarding the IDF, which is a modern western army?

    As for the education corps, the decline of its influence a part of the same story. The interesting fact – which I tried to emphasize on the post – is Ashkenazi’s lack of action: on one hand he hides Rontzki, and on the other one he protects and even praises him. This look to me more like petty politics that a clear position.

    As for the broader issue at hand – yes, I do think that the influence of radical, even messianic, Judaism is on the rise. I believe that it’s true for the army, and for Israeli politics in general (though there are other forces at play as well). I think that if the peace process gets serious, we will see it more and more. Remember how Rontzki was attacked for not supporting the refusal to evacuate settlements? I wonder what he will do when the issue will be Itamar.

    Regarding your first point – I don’t think I’ve ever seen an official army document saying that the Rabbinate is in charge of fighting spirit (that’s certainly wasn’t the way things were when I served). I think it’s definitely worth noticing, but you are entitled to your opinion that this is a “none-story”.

  3. 3 Aviv said at 8:49 am on August 28th, 2009:

    On the macro level – Indeed my comments don’t contradict your blog post, and we agree that Brig. Gen. Rontzki’s opinions are inappropriate, and so is Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi’s non-reaction. But I do think that you left key parts of the story out of the blog post and that it’s a misleading piece.

    That our neighbors are far worse in their religious zealotry of course should not serve as any moral standard for the IDF. But it should serve as a guideline to anyone writing about the conflict to a foreign audience. You insinuate Israel has now gone far on a “holy war”, yet substantiate that claim poorly.

    On the micro level – Since you have a job in the MSM, you can easily ask the IDF Spokesperson for the orders (פק”א) of the Chief Military Rabbinate, a document which would include its general purpose, and ask if Rontzki had it changed recently.

    Also see this article (in Hebrew) about the Rabbinate changing throughout the generations. Apparently if you ask two different religious Jews what the Rabbinate is for, you’ll get at least two different answers, and there’s much more variance over 60+ years of its existence. So all bets are off if Rontzki’s little revolution will stay in place when he’s gone.

  4. 4 noam said at 11:06 am on August 28th, 2009:

    On the macro level: I don’ think anyone who lives in Israel can seriously question the role the Jewish revisionism of Gush Emunim played in the country’s political life. If Rontzki was an isolated phenomenon, I could have agreed with your “what’s the big deal” attitude. But as we know, this is not the case. Furthermore, I believe that we are coming to a dangerous crossroad, when the power of the new religious elite is growing, while their life project might be on the verge of collapsing. The behavior of people like Bri-Gen Rontzki will have a major role in determining the way this conflict will play out.

    The article you posted was very interesting, but it also emphasized the fact that there exists a “Rontzki revolution” which can be summed in the concept “כהן משוח מלחמה” – the role the Bri-Gen envisions for his corps (and on top of all, for himself). If that’s not a messianic approach, I don’t know what is. You might be right in suggesting that once Rontzki leaves his office the Rabbinate will go back to kitchens inspections, but there is really no way of telling.

    As for asking for comment from the IDF on the site’s content and on the Rabbinate’s role in general, I actually hope I will get to doing that next week, either myself or through another reporter.