IDF top education officer: No place for rabbis at swearing-in ceremonies

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — The Israeli army’s chief education officer recommended that rabbis no longer be allowed to speak at swearing-in ceremonies for recruits.

The recommendation by Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk was revealed on Wednesday night, when a screenshot of an undated letter that Paz-Tzuk sent to Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, who heads the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate, appeared on the news site rotter.net.

The letter comes amid a polarizing debate within Israeli society about the role of religion in the public sphere in general and especially in the IDF, which has traditionally been regarded as the country’s most effective melting pot. Recent walkouts by troops who, for religious reasons, refused to attend ceremonies featuring women’s singing, have been decried by secular Jews as evidence of radicalization.

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“I believe it is flawed that the central figures in the ceremony, alongside the unit commander, are the corps rabbi and the unit rabbi. The ceremony is not religious and there is no reason for it to appear religious,” Paz-Tzuk wrote.

Paz-Tzuk recommended cancelling all public functions for rabbis at swearing-ins, proposing that one of the recruits’ commanders reads from the bible instead of the rabbi.

“The rabbinate does not have exclusivity over the bible,” he wrote. “There is no reason for a rabbi, of all people, to speak at a swearing-in ceremony for the IDF and the state,” he added.

Most IDF soldiers are Jews, although a majority are secular. In addition, the IDF has tens of thousands of Muslim and Christian soldiers and officers.

In an interview Thursday for Army Radio, Aryeh Deri, the head of the Orthodox Sephardic Shas party, said the recommendation would exclude religious Jewish soldiers from service.