The religious situation of in the army is a very important issue, however, also neglected and suppressed * The need to strengthen the awareness of the obligation to protest against violations of religious rights in the IDF * Modesty in the army is deteriorating, in accordance with its deterioration in society at large * A difficult story about a soldier who, due to religious harassment, reached a state of shell shock * The importance of soldiers sharing their distress with their parents * The army’s readiness to take into account a religious soldier is influenced by his degree of seriousness in Torah and mitzvot * The Chief of Staff’s responsibility for the situation * The focal point of the struggle – protection of the rights of the religious soldier
Deepening the Discussion on the Religious Situation in the Army
Following my column about the religious situation of the IDF and the obligation to protest in the army, a lively and informative discussion ensued. I received many letters, and the main thing I learned from them is that the subject is extremely important, and at the same time, also suppressed and neglected. Parents wrote that until now they felt silenced. Educators wrote to me, ‘yasher koach’ (all the power to you). The most painful letters were those of soldiers who recalled difficult memories of their service with secular men and women soldiers who made their lives miserable, and often jokingly tried to trip them up in serious religious transgressions. They wrote that as a result of my previous columns, they felt for the first time they could complain, and thus, reinforced my will to continue dealing with this important issue.
Raising the Problems, and the Duty to Protest
Consequently, I am fulfilling their request to raise the problems (while censoring the difficult and immodest stories) so that the soldiers, their parents, and their educators can prime themselves for service in the IDF, and also to strengthen the awareness of the duty to perform the mitzvah of rebuke in the army: First, by appealing to the commanders and the army rabbi of the unit, and in cooperation with parents and educators. And if the problem is not corrected – to file complaints with the Army Rabbinate, the Public Inquiries Office of the Manpower Branch, the Ombudsman of the Soldiers, the “Tzav Echad” organization, and in severe cases, to contact the supportive media.
The Situation in the Army in Short
It should be noted that overall, the letters indicate that the situation of modesty in the army is gradually deteriorating consistent with the situation in society in general. When many high school teens behave wantonly, and girls require means of birth control, unsurprisingly the need for contraception increases greatly in the army, and the atmosphere becomes more indecent and gloomy for the religious soldier.
There are, nonetheless, sections in the army where modesty is properly maintained, such as in rear units manned by high-quality individuals where soldiers return home every night, and in units where numbers of religious soldiers serve.
A Mother’s Painful Letter
“Rabbi, when I read your previous article, I cried. You do not know how right you are! The dilemma of whether to complain really does involve ‘pikuach nefesh’ (life-endangering situation)! My third son was less suited to studying in yeshiva, so he did not enlist in the Hesder yeshiva program. He served in an infantry brigade, and encountered commanders and soldiers who made his life miserable. At first he complained about the crude behavior between a commander and a female soldier, and also about the indecent pictures hung-up in the rooms; as a result, they began calling him a ‘rat’, mocked him for praying and keeping kosher, began talking more crassly in his presence, made the kitchen utensils non-kosher to annoy him, and on Shabbat, played songs loudly in his room. Every so often when he went to sleep, he also found that they had placed pictures of naked women on his bed.
At the same time, one of the operations in Gaza began. His relations with his commanders and fellow soldiers were so miserable that he lacked trust in them, and was afraid to sleep at night, lest they try to abandon him. And so, exhausted, he continued functioning for about a week, until one of his commanders and a soldier were seriously wounded right beside to him. He developed combat stress, and could not continue functioning. Only afterwards did he begin telling us what had happened to him in the army. Still, we had to make great efforts to persuade him to re-count his experiences to an army psychologist. Luckily for us, the army recognized its responsibility for the psychological damage he encountered.
It took him two years until he was able to get a full-night’s sleep. He is still in therapy, and we hope he will recover.
Two things are important for me to mention at the end of my letter: 1) soldiers should be encouraged to share all the problems with their parents so they can strengthen them emotionally, and so they can complain in their stead, because sometimes they are afraid to complain, lest they be harassed or have their promotion harmed. 2) Young men going into the army should be encouraged to enlist through the Hesder yeshiva program.”
An Informative Letter
The following letter was written by a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) with a background in psychology, and a talent for observing people and society:
“Thank you for inviting readers to participate in this important discussion. From my experience in the regular army and reserve duty, there are indeed quite a few religious soldiers who must deal with difficult situations. However, the army establishment is extremely large, and there are also religious soldiers who are not in the framework of Hesder who do not encounter serious problems, and are even satisfied during most of their army service.
The situation is usually determined by the nature of the soldiers, especially the officers. When some of the soldiers are inherently vulgar, they engage in obscenities and curse a lot, and it creates a hostile atmosphere throughout the entire unit, and affects everyone. On the other hand, many of the secular soldiers are modest by nature, do not enjoy joking about matters of indecency, and also respect the Shabbat. It is true that when there are female soldiers looking for attention, even if quite a few secular soldiers, both men and women, suffer from it, there is almost no chance to create a modest and dignified atmosphere.
Moreover, the situation of a religious soldier is largely determined by his character. Even when the atmosphere is difficult, soldiers who do not mind being alone, or spending a lot of time in the synagogue and ignoring the ridicule of their friends, are usually not affected. However, those who find such alienation difficult, will suffer.
Additionally, a soldier’s response to unpleasant situations greatly influences the response of his surrounding environment. A weak and hesitant soldier will suffer. A soldier with social skills and inner strength, will be respected. The more apparent his seriousness in Torah and fear of God is, the more the other soldiers will respect the religious soldier. Therefore, the advice that you wrote in the past, Rabbi Melamed, that soldiers should wear their tzitzit outwardly, is very helpful.
At one time in our army service we had a secular company commander who used to curse in an awful manner, and it affected all the commanders and soldiers. After I complained to him, and he realized that it bothered us greatly, he fervently ordered everyone to guard their tongue, and stop cursing. And so it was.
Although, at another time in my service, there was a company commander who was particularly interested in the company’s female clerk, and the atmosphere they imbued among all the commanders and soldiers was extremely immodest.
Company evenings and various entertainment events held for soldiers are very problematic. Usually there are female soldiers who inflame the atmosphere, and goad soldiers to interact with them, and then the atmosphere turns crude and immodest.
In reserve duty, the situation is more severe in terms of immodesty and kashrut because some individuals come to reserve duty to unwind, and they unload all their “garbage” in public, and army laws are less enforced. If possible, it is good to make sure that a few religious soldiers be together, and then their concerns are more readily taken into consideration.
To sum up, the army is comprised of numerous places and different situations. Problems will usually be determined by the soldiers and officers serving there, and by the character and strength of the religious soldier. It appears that most lower-ranking officers look after their religious soldiers, and want them to have a pleasant and comfortable time during their service. However, two situations are liable to cause a religious soldier to suffer a severe emotional crisis, or to stop being religious: 1) in places where the officers and soldiers are vulgar and inconsiderate. 2) Religious soldiers whose social skills are mediocre, and whose emotional strength is not firm (this comprises at least 20 percent of soldiers). Therefore, as you detailed in your articles Rabbi, it is important, and even essential, to complain through the various means, in order to improve the situation, and prevent disasters.”
A Letter from a Lawyer
“I wanted to strengthen the importance of filing complaints and grievances in the army, and their great benefit. Twice I complained to officials about problems in religious matters, and in both cases the impact was significant… The second case: at the end of my service, I submitted a complaint that at a dairy evening meals at the base, they put out several plates used for meat, and placed salt shakers designated for meat meals on the tables. I argued that it was inconceivable that there were six religious coordinators (‘mashak dat’) on the base, but there was never a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) – not for breakfast, nor for dinner meals.
The complaint caused a huge headache for the entire administration in the camp for several weeks, to the point where when I wanted to return to visit the base during my discharge leave and take some things that I had left there, my commander recommended that I come back only after my discharge was final, because there were a number of officers who “wanted my blood” on account of the complaint… in actuality, the kashrut situation there improved greatly.
Regarding the statistics of complaints: in the year 2015, 6,371 complaints were received by the High Commission, of which 61.06% were justified. Complaints concerning religious issues were only 0.4% of the total complaints. In my estimation, if all religious soldiers were to complain about religious matters as they complain about other problems, the majority of complaints in the army would be about matters dealing with religion.
Is there a Time Limit for Filing a Complaint?
Concerning the question until when can a complaint be filed, from a purely legal perspective, there is no restriction. True, the law restricts the submission of a complaint for one year from the date of the act on which it is submitted (or six months from the date of a soldier’s release), but the law also allows the Ombudsman to accept complaints submitted after the deadline, if he finds a “special reason” for doing so. Fear of harassment of the system is such a reason.”
Who is Responsible? The General Staff!
There are rabbis who prefer to say that what is happening in the army stems from the takeover of the General Staff by external elements from the extreme left. However, I think they are mistaken. The guilty ones are the members of the General Staff – first and foremost, the Chief of Staff. They are not stupid enough to be fooled. Perhaps they use public figures from left-wing to communicate, but the values are their own, as they publically declare. Therefore, the struggle must first start with them.
Means of Contesting
The struggle should be focused on defending the religious soldier. A basic rule of halakha is ‘hakarov, karov kodem’ (he who is closest comes first). The religious soldiers are crying out for this, are in need of it, and it is our duty to help them. It seems to me that by way of neglecting religious soldiers, and instead, trying to tackle the issue of Jewish consciousness in the IDF overall, a situation was created in which neither of them were successful. ‘Tafasta meruba lo tafasta’ (“If you have seized a lot, you have not seized”). If they were to focus precisely on helping those who are desperate for help, they could have a positive effect on the general atmosphere.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: