The Dawn of the Struggle for Religious Rights in the I.D.F.

On November 29, 1947, Israel’s War of Independence broke out. The Haganah began to assemble an army. Many religious and Haredi Jews enlisted, however, since almost all the officers were non-religious, some of them even anti-religious, numerous problems erupted concerning the safe-guarding of the mitzvoth (commandments). There was an urgent need to establish a unit within the army to deal with religious matters.

The representatives of the religious parties argued amongst themselves over the question of “who will be the boss”. With the intervention of rabbi’s and Admorim, it was agreed that two thirds of the jobs would be in the hands of members from the ‘Mizrachi’ and ‘Po’alei Mizrachi’ parties, and one third would go to ‘Agudat Yisrael’ and ‘Po’alei Agudat Yisrael’. This is how the ‘Religious Services’ division was established.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, the representative from ‘Agudat Yisrael’, tells in his book “Lo B’Chayil, v’Lo B’Koach” that on his first day at work in the ‘Religious Service’ division, he met in Tel Aviv the son of Rabbi Fishel, who was serving in a religious unit (members of B’nai Akiva). He told him that the soldiers of his unit were on a hunger strike for three days because of kashrut problems. Nevertheless, the soldiers continued to train. Rabbi Meir dealt with the problem and the soldiers were able to eat once again. A number of the soldiers from that unit were killed in Gush Etzion.

A Discussion with the Chief of Staff

Towards the Passover holiday in 1948, the members of the ‘Religious Services’ division were beside themselves, and pondered quitting. At a meeting with the Chief of Staff, Ya’acov Dori, they complained that they weren’t able to take care of religious matters in the army. Many of the units were lacking utensils, and consequently, many soldiers were eating both meat and dairy from the same pots and dishes. The commanding officer of the Man Power Division would not agree to send a representative from each unit in order to prepare the kitchens for Passover; thus, they listed a number of problems. The Chief of Staff listened to them earnestly, and replied: “I have heard what you said, and it stems from a pained heart. However, as the Chief of Staff who is responsible for all the army, I must make it clear: what you have stated has happened not out of evilness or bad intentions. Is the army lacking only kitchen utensils? We don’t have rifles to give to the soldiers; we are lacking ammunition, artillery, and mortars. The penetration of the road to Jerusalem is being delayed due to this situation. Therefore, my request to you is this: continue your work and I promise my assistance, but, please, do not consider quitting. Continue, and be successful.”

This was the fundamental position of the government and the Chief of Staff; however, in actuality, due to the opinion of various officers, the religious soldiers were forced to struggle for their rights to safeguard the mitzvoth. Sometimes the confrontations were bitter and painful.

The Establishment of the I.D.F. Chief Rabbinate and the Nomination of Rabbi Goren

When it became clear to the Chief Rabbi’s, Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory, that the ‘Religious Service’ division did not have the ability to properly supervise religious matters in the army, they assembled the Council of the Chief Rabbinate and decided to establish, under their own jurisdiction, the “Military Rabbinate” which would be lead by Rabbi Shlomo Goren (Goronchik). They turned to the Minister of Religion, Rabbi Maimon, and the heads of the army, in order to arrange the establishment of the Military Rabbinate, and to nominate Rabbi Goren as the Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F.

Incidentally, this is the suitable approach to nominate the Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F., and not the method which has become accepted in the recent past, that the Chief Rabbi is appointed by the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff, for we cannot be sure that the safeguarding of the Torah and mitzvoth in the army is their most important consideration when choosing a rabbi.

The Punishment for Soldiers Who Refuse to Profane the Sabbath

At the end of 1948, during the course of the War of Independence, an officer in charge of army cooks ordered two soldiers from a religious unit to cook food on Shabbat for their fellow religious soldiers. The cooks refused. When the officer realized that his threats weren’t working, he called in other cooks to prepare the food, however, all the soldiers refused to eat the food that was cooked on Shabbat.

The two soldiers, Shimon Manheim and Eliezer Blumanthal, graduates of a Talmud Torah in Bnei Brak, were tried and sentenced to prison for a week, and had their heads shaved in order to humiliate them. While in jail they appealed to their divisional army court. Rabbi Goren, of blessed memory, the new Chief Rabbi of the army, also appeared before the court and claimed that the soldiers acted properly according to the laws of the Torah and the laws of kashrut in the I.D.F. Nevertheless, the court rejected the soldiers appeal, and even decided to harden their sentence to three months in jail.

Religious [Haredi] Soldiers Go On a Hunger Strike

In response to this, soldiers from a religious unit went on a hunger strike. Members of the I.D.F. Rabbinate began to spur on the heads of the political parties to act on behalf of the prisoners. Although the military censor prohibited publicizing the trial and sentencing of the soldiers, the news leaked-out and aroused a public storm.

In the meantime, other incidences were revealed. Two other soldiers who worked as cooks refused to cook meat on Shabbat and were punished by being sent to the frontline in a taxi on Shabbat. The heads of all the religious parties and important rabbi’s convened an emergency meeting. It was decided that the politicians would use all the tools at their disposal, while at the same time a group of rabbi’s would go meet the hunger-striking soldiers and order them to stop their strike.

Members of Knesset directed a parliamentary question to the Minister of Defense. Rabbi Maimon, the Minister of Religion, raised the topic in the government meeting, objecting to the humiliating punishment of shaving the soldiers’ heads and to the censorship which hid the scandal from the public.

The government meeting was stormy. A number of non-religious ministers criticized the Minister of Defense. They claimed that just as we, the non-religious, demand freedom of conscience for ourselves, so too, we demand freedom of conscience for religious people, and it can’t be that the religious soldiers who acted according to their conscience should receive a punishment of imprisonment. The majority of ministers supported the religious ministers. Consequently, the Minister of Defense ordered the release of the soldiers from jail, and simultaneously ordered the Chief of Staff to publicize orders of the General Staff to arrange and resolve religious matters.

Religious Soldiers’ Graves Hidden

For ten’s of the first years of the State, the graves of about a thousand religious and Haredi soldiers who were killed in the War of Independence were hidden. In every dispute, claims were always made that it was the non-religious who were willing to sacrifice their lives in war, and only they, and not the religious, are buried in military grave sites. In actuality, it seems that the percentage of fallen soldiers in the war from the religious sector was relatively proportionate to their size amongst the population of the State; however, this information was not given public expression, to the point where even the religious public accepted this position as a fact.

Haredi Jews in the Army

During those times, a dispute amongst the Haredi public concerning the question of serving in the army took place. On the one hand there were prominent rabbi’s who supported Zionism and spoke about the mitzvah to serve in the army. Contrastingly, there were rabbi’s who believed that the establishment of the State was a dangerous arousal of the goyim. On the one hand, the desire to emerge courageously for the sake of the nation and the land. On the other hand, the fear of war and its dangers. The degrading attitude of various officers towards Judaism’s sacred precepts and the difficulty of safeguarding the mitzvoth in the army which stemmed from this, determined the dispute. Within a few years, the Haredi public accepted a clear position – there is no room for a Haredi Jew in the I. D. F

The Status of Religious Jews

It wasn’t easy for the religious, either. In many cases, soldiers who didn’t want to harm the military unity were forced to compromise. Some of them returned frustrated, while others took off their kippa’s. This fact caused a portion of the religious public to adopt a Haredi outlook, thereby also ridding them of the heavy and dangerous burden of military service. In the first years the percentages were relatively low. As the years went by the numbers grew, to the point where in the last tens of years approximately 30% of parents prefer to send their children to Haredi schools. The situation of the religious in the army was one of the central causes for the enormous change which took place in the educational system. Fifty years ago, approximately 5% of children learned in Haredi schools, and about 25% in the state-religious schools. Today, however, amongst first graders, approximately 26% learn in Haredi schools and only 19% in state-religious schools. A portion of the change in numbers stems from birthrate, while the major reason derives from the transfer of religious people to the Haredi society.

And what are the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, and the head of the Man Power Division doing in order that the Israel Defense Force remains the army of the nation? They declare that religious soldiers must obey orders which harm their fellow countrymen, and that it is forbidden to take into consideration the position of the rabbi’s. However, in order to enlist some of the Haredi public, they are ready to get down on their hands and knees to fulfill all of their demands – as long as they enlist.

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