The Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi told students in a pre-army yeshiva program last week that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned.”
Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki also told the yeshiva students that religious individuals made better combat troops. Speaking Thursday at the Hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, Rontzki referred to Maimonides’ discourse on the laws of war. That text quotes a passage from the Book of Jeremiah stating: “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
In Rontzki’s words, “In times of war, whoever doesn’t fight with all his heart and soul is damned – if he keeps his sword from bloodshed, if he shows mercy toward his enemy when no mercy should be shown.”
Whatever else we might think about Maimonides’ (or Jeremiah’s) words, we are certainly free to debate their academic meaning. But when they are uttered by the Chief Rabbi of the IDF to future Israeli soldiers, words such as these are much, much more than merely academic.
You may remember that Rabbi Rontzki (above) was in the news following Israel’s military operation in Gaza, when soldiers alleged that he gave them a religious booklet entitled “Go Fight My Fight.” This publication was written by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem, who wrote that Palestinians were the equivalent of the Biblical Philistines and that cruelty can sometimes be a “good attribute.”
You may also remember that Israeli soldiers from the organization Shovrim Shtika (“Breaking the Silence”) brought this issue to light following the war in Gaza. Though they have been attacked mercilessly by the Israeli political establishment, soldiers have continued to speak out. Last September, Gal Einav and Shamir Yeger, two reserve infantry soldiers who fought in Gaza wrote a powerful editorial in the Israeli press about what they considered to be an unwelcome “messianic” religious influence into the IDF:
There is a problem with the growing tendency to provide religious elements with a monopoly on values and fighting spirit, and particularly with the legitimacy granted to organizations with a missionary and messianic character to operate amongst the soldiers. Most of the commanders in our division are religious, yet up until the last war there was complete separation between their private world and their military position.
If we fail to clearly draw the line right now, in a few years we shall find ourselves shifting from wars of choice or no-choice to holy wars.
In a September BBC report, Reserve General Nehemia Dagan had this to say about the issue:
We (soldiers) used to be able to put aside our own ideas in order to do what we had to do. It didn’t matter if we were religious or from a kibbutz. But that’s not the case anymore.
The morals of the battlefield cannot come from a religious authority. Once it does, it’s Jihad. I know people will not like that word but that’s what it is, Holy War. And once it’s Holy War there are no limits.
What explains the growth of this right-wing religious influence in the IDF? I tend to agree with blogger Zachary Goelman, who points out an larger demographic trend in Israeli society:
With conscription rates dropping annually, especially among secular Jews, and a simultaneous increase in the country’s religious population, Yeger and Einav are part of a shrinking minority. No doubt they know many who ducked their conscription call. If they have draft-age children, they’ve certainly heard them discuss the myriad ways of obtaining a deferral.
This trend is reversed in the dati-le’umi sector, the category of Israeli Jews broadly classified as “national religious.” In one way or another the men and women woven from this cloth see military and national service as a form of religious duty, and their ranks in uniform and civil society will increase in the coming decades. Coupled with the consistent growth of ultra-orthodox families, secular Israel may be in the final throes of its götterdämmerung.
Whatever the explanation, I personally find the implications of this trend to be beyond troubling. How will we, as Jews, respond to the potential growth of Jewish Holy War ideology within the ranks of the Israeli military? For that matter, how do we feel, as Americans, by the very notion of a “Chief Rabbi of the IDF?” Should we really be surprised that things are now coming to this – in a country where the civil authority lies in the hands of a traditional religious elite?
I do not ask these questions out of a desire to be inflammatory. I ask them only because I believe we need to discuss them honestly and openly – and because these kinds of painful questions have for too long been dismissed and marginalized by the “mainstream” Jewish establishment.
For myself at least – as a Jew and as a rabbi – I will take this opportunity to register my personal offense at statements such as those made last week by Rabbi Rontzki.