A retired general well acquainted with Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi praised his recent appointment as IDF chief of staff. “The only thing that concerns me is that Aviv Kochavi aspires to become prime minister,” he told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He explained that if this indeed is the case, Kochavi might be tempted to try pleasing the crowd in a way that will affect his decisions as chief of staff.
Such a thing has happened before. Since the founding of the state in 1948, almost every second IDF chief has gone into politics after shedding his uniform. The chair of the Israel Resilience party, Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, is No. 11 on the list. But experience has shown that a successful military career does not always translate into a successful political one — as in the case of Lt. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Rabin’s first term as prime minister and Lt. Gen. (res.) Ehud Barak.
Either way, the militarization of politics is a sad commentary on Israeli society. Of even greater concern is the politicization of the military, especially when tainted by nationalist clericalism in the top ranks. From there, too, it's a short road to the top political echelons.
The IDF rabbinate has long served as a jumping-off point to the country’s chief rabbinate and the leadership of yeshivas. The Feb. 3 choice of the IDF's former chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. (res.) Rafi Peretz, as head of HaBayit HaYehudi shows that the religious political right has discovered the political potential that lies in the combination of a senior military rank and a top rabbinical authority. However, this coin has another side. The army has become the playing field of an entire political sector that views religious law as competing with the laws of the state and often superseding them. Military rabbis have become halachic (Jewish law) authorities, issuing rulings any time they deem that government decisions and commanders’ orders are not in tune with divine injunctions.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established the military rabbinate unit to deal with the implementation of Jewish dietary law (Kashrut) and adherence to the Sabbath, to provide religious services for God-fearing soldiers and release widows of dead soldiers from their marital vows. The rabbinate was modeled after the US military chaplaincy, which sees to the needs of soldiers from different religions and helps them conduct their rituals and customs. Ben-Gurion had no idea that the military rabbinate would spin out of control, as has happened with the growing exemption of yeshiva students from mandatory military service.
The first military rabbi, Shlomo Goren, was the first but hardly the last to turn Israel’s military battles into “holy wars” dictated by religious Jewish law that do not require permission from the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical courts that held sway in the Land of Israel until the 5th century. In June 1967, several days after the IDF conquered East Jerusalem from Jordan in the so-called Six Day War, Goren went secretly to the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites adjacent to Judaism’s sanctified Western Wall, one hand holding a Torah and the other a shofar. He clashed repeatedly with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who sought to avoid religious wars and decided to leave the Dome of the Rock compound in the hands of the Muslim Waqf to administer it under the Jordanians. Not long after, the general’s rank catapulted Goren into the seat of Israel’s chief rabbi.
Armed with his military-rabbinical prestige, Goren ruled in 1993 that a soldier can disobey a “secular” order if it contradicts the laws of the Torah. He ruled that soldiers must not obey an order to evacuate Jewish settlements — as envisioned in the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord signed that year — since it contradicts the edict that Jews must settle the Land of Israel, which is of a higher order than all other biblical injunctions. He regarded the Oslo agreement as illegal because the government relied on the Arab parties to push it through the Knesset.
Former Chief IDF Rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki boasted that during Operation Cast Lead, IDF rabbis were an integral part of combat units. He said they provided the troops with “mental strength” and contributed to a deepening of Jewish awareness. The IDF weekly magazine “Bamahaneh” reported that a minute before Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip, a unit of the Givati Brigade gathered around its rabbi, who walked among the soldiers holding a Torah and touching their heads in benediction. The late Rontzki, who was a resident of the West Bank settlement of Itamar, enabled rabbis from the farthest reaches of the radical right to wander around different army units to “strengthen” soldiers in their faith.
A 2011 report by the government’s watchdog, the state comptroller, noted that army chief Gabi Ashkenazi decided that publications of a political nature signed by the IDF rabbinate violate the status quo and are detrimental to the IDF. The head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate remarked that some of the messages issued by IDF rabbis during Cast Lead were inappropriate, contradicted orders and were politically tainted and judgmental of the soldiers’ views and beliefs. In response, Rontzki said, “A connection to biblical times and to the history of our nation, which has its roots in the days of the patriarch Abraham, would make them better soldiers.” In 2013, Rontzki ran for a top spot on HaBayit HaYehudi’s Knesset slate, coming in 13th.
Rontzki’s successor, Peretz, issued an order in 2010 titled “Principles of Conducting Jewish Awareness Activity in the IDF.” The order required IDF units to conduct monthly activities to raise awareness of Judaism. In a letter he sent to then- Deputy Chief of Staff Gantz, the military’s chief education officer warned that the order could come at the expense of other subjects, among them Israeli democracy and the IDF spirit.
IDF rabbis were heavily involved in the next war with Gaza, the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. In a letter to his subordinates as they prepared to go into battle, commander of the Givati Brigade Col. Ofer Winter wrote, “I raise my eyes to the heavens and recite with you, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” He went on to ask for divine intervention to “make our path successful as we go and stand to fight for the sake of your people of Israel against a foe which curses your name.” Winter was subsequently promoted to brigadier general and appointed as the military adjunct of the minister of defense.
Tarbush-wearing clerics, who introduce Allah and the laws of Islam into the military and politics, are considered jihadists. In Israel, kippah-wearing men who promote God and Jewish law in the same way are regarded as emissaries carrying out sacred duties and therefore enjoy divine protection.
Theodor Herzl, visionary of Zionism, wrote in his book "The Jewish State," "The army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the state, which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within."