Rabbi Levenstein’s Important Message

The recent week-long frenzy surrounding Rabbi Yigal Levenstein’s statements about those whose actions are labeled “toeivah” by the Torah ignored the real subject of Rabbi Levenstein’s 37-minute speech: the systematic de-Judaization of the IDF and its increasing inhospitability to religious soldiers and officers.

Rabbi Levenstein spoke from a purely defensive posture. He did advocate the expulsion from the IDF of those he criticized or any other hostile action. Rather, he urged that religious soldiers and officers not continue to be subjected to materials designed to convince them, to paraphrase the Chazon Ish, that what the Torah views as an issur kares is really a beautiful love story.

Rabbi Levenstein pointed to the recent closure of the “Jewish identity” division of the IDF rabbinate as a prime example of the de-Judaization. He charged that the IDF singles out officers who are too religious by asking questions such as, “Are you shomer negiah?” One of the psychological exercises in an officer’s training course asked the participants to divide themselves according to their views on civil marriage in Israel.

Has the IDF come to view religious soldiers and officers and religious motivations as a greater danger than an asset? Certainly, the senior educational officer who pronounced “the hilltop youth” – not Iran, not the 150,000 Hezbollah missiles aimed at Israel – as the greatest threat to Israel seems to think so.

The Hartman Institute’s Yaakov Kastel, personal advisor to outgoing chief educational officer Brig.-Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk, also thinks so. In the midst of Operation Preventive Edge, he helped establish a non-profit to focus on the question of whether the IDF is “a holy army/army of Hashem or an army of the state.” If before battle one reads prayers or Biblical passages of the wars of Israel, he asked after Operation Cast Lead, “what chance is there that a soldier will act afterwards with purity of arms?”

Officers serving in Yehudah and Shomron are advised not to speak of the area as the “moledet (birthplace)” of the Jewish people or about our rights to the Land.

According to Rabbi Levenstein, the higher a religious officer rises in the army, the more radical the agenda to which he is exposed. He will hear lectures on the Palestinian narrative. (One wonders who teaches the Israeli/Jewish narrative in the PA, or to Hamas and Hezbollah.) Kalman Libeskind, writing in Maariv, provides a long list of IDF educational lecturers who have called for boycotts of Yehudah and Shomron and the like. The vision of Israel as a multi-cultural, pluralistic “state of all its citizens,” not as the Jewish state, becomes increasingly prominent as the officer climbs up the ladder.

But even early in the army service, the 2016 IDF booklet on values includes subjects of no conceivable military import: women praying in tallisos and tefillin at the Kosel; egalitarian minyamin; alternative kashrus certification.

Much of the IDF educational program serves to undermine any belief among recruits in the justness of Israel’s cause or in the quality of Israeli democracy. It is as if American soldiers were taught American history from the point of the view of the Indians. In the words of the outgoing chief educational officer, the period prior to Operation Preventive Edge – i.e., the period of searching for the three kidnapped and murdered yeshiva students – provided rich soil for revealing the endemic racism towards Israeli Arabs. He finds a great deal to fault as well in Israel’s treatment of Bedouins in the Negev.

At one time, the message of IDF trips to Auschwitz was that soldiers must do everything in their power to prevent another Auschwitz. Today, the central message is that they must beware of becoming Nazis themselves – the same message expressed by Deputy Commander in Chief Yair Golan in his Remembrance Day speech.

THE PORTRAIT OF CURRENT TRENDS IN THE IDF painted by someone as deeply connected with the IDF as Rabbi Levenstein is deeply disturbing on several grounds. First, the desire to ensure the survival of the Jewish people has always been the most powerful motivating factor in the IDF for religious and secular soldiers alike. Asked for the basis of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, arch-secularist David Ben-Gurion held up the Tanach. It was not the religious commander Ofer Vinter who first invoked G-d’s protection going into battle against a “treacherous enemy,” but chief of southern command Gen. Yeshaya Gavish in 1967. And Chief of Staff Yitzchok Rabin proclaimed the 1967 victory “a great miracle from Hashem.”

Reduce Israel to a “state of all its citizens” and those citizens will show as little interest in defending it as Europeans show today in defending themselves. Moreover, there is no replacement for the commitment and devotion to duty of the national religious community, which today makes up over 40 percent of the junior officer corps. The kibbutzim will not reclaim their historical role in providing combat commanders. Nor will the children of affluence, dreaming of making it big in hi-tech, pick up the baton.

By continually drumming into soldiers the importance of showing restraint and caution at all times, not of achieving the military mission; by holding up for emulation not Col. Roi Klein, who cast himself on a grenade to save those under his command, while calling out “Shema Yisroel,” but rather an officer who remained against orders to keep Palestinians away from a possibly booby-trapped car and was stabbed to death by a terrorist for his efforts; by stressing to officers the necessity of thinking “strategically” in terms of Israel’s international image, the IDF causes soldiers to wonder if they are being asked to risk their lives not to defend their country, but to advance a public relations campaign. And the young have noticed, even if the IDF has not, that no matter how many accolades the IDF garners for doing more than any army in history to protect civilian lives, its critics will never acknowledge that fact.

Finally, as Rabbi Levenstein explicitly noted, the IDF has succeeded in confirming chareidi fears about IDF service. The IDF has made clear that social values, such as equal service for women, will both improve military efficiency and the religious sensibilities of soldiers or officers. It has thereby rendered promises to chareidi recruits about gender separation suspect. And by focusing so heavily on Ha’aretz’s version of “democratic values,” it has reinforced the traditional chareidi fear of the IDF being used as an instrument of socialization from Torah values.

The good news, however, is that for all the obloquy hurled at him, Rabbi Levenstein may have struck a nerve. The surprise appointment of Air Force Brig.Gen. Tzvi Fairaizen, a graduate of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, who comes from the air force and intelligence branches and not the educational corps, may signal a shift in direction for the IDF. We shall see.