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IDF rabbinate publication during Gaza war: We will show no mercy on the cruel

Amos Harel
Haaretz, a major Israeli daily newspaper
January 26, 2009

During the fighting in the Gaza Strip, the religious media - and on two occasions, the Israel Defense Forces weekly journal Bamahane - were full of praise for the army rabbinate. The substantial role of religious officers and soldiers in the front-line units of the IDF was, for the first time, supported also by the significant presence of rabbis there.

The chief army rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki, joined the troops in the field on a number of occasions, as did rabbis under his command.

Officers and soldiers reported that they felt "spiritually elevated" and "morally empowered" by conversations with rabbis who gave them encouragement before the confrontation with the Palestinians.

But what exactly was the content of these conversations and of the plethora of written material disseminated by the IDF rabbinate during the war? A reservist battalion rabbi told the religious newspaper B'Sheva last week that Rontzki explained to his staff that their role was not "to distribute wine and challah for Shabbat to the troops," but "to fill them with yiddishkeit and a fighting spirit."

An overview of some of the army rabbinate's publications made available during the fighting reflects the tone of nationalist propaganda that steps blatantly into politics, sounds racist and can be interpreted as a call to challenge international law when it comes to dealing with enemy civilians.

Haaretz has received some of the publications through Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who collect evidence of unacceptable behavior in the army vis-a-vis Palestinians. Other material was provided by officers and men who received it during Operation Cast Lead. Following are quotations from this material:

"[There is] a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimeter of it [the Land of Israel] to gentiles, though all sorts of impure distortions and foolishness of autonomy, enclaves and other national weaknesses. We will not abandon it to the hands of another nation, not a finger, not a nail of it." This is an excerpt from a publication entitled "Daily Torah studies for the soldier and the commander in Operation Cast Lead," issued by the IDF rabbinate. The text is from "Books of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner," who heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

The following questions are posed in one publication: "Is it possible to compare today's Palestinians to the Philistines of the past? And if so, is it possible to apply lessons today from the military tactics of Samson and David?" Rabbi Aviner is again quoted as saying: "A comparison is possible because the Philistines of the past were not natives and had invaded from a foreign land ... They invaded the Land of Israel, a land that did not belong to them and claimed political ownership over our country ... Today the problem is the same. The Palestinians claim they deserve a state here, when in reality there was never a Palestinian or Arab state within the borders of our country. Moreover, most of them are new and came here close to the time of the War of Independence."

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. 'A la guerre comme a la guerre.'"

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that "our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart" and warns that "we will show no mercy on the cruel."

In addition to the official publications, extreme right-wing groups managed to bring pamphlets with racist messages into IDF bases. One such flyer is attributed to "the pupils of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg" - the former rabbi at Joseph's Tomb and author of the article "Baruch the Man," which praises Baruch Goldstein, who massacred unarmed Palestinians in Hebron. It calls on "soldiers of Israel to spare your lives and the lives of your friends and not to show concern for a population that surrounds us and harms us. We call on you ... to function according to the law 'kill the one who comes to kill you.' As for the population, it is not innocent ... We call on you to ignore any strange doctrines and orders that confuse the logical way of fighting the enemy."

The Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din has called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to immediately remove Rabbi Rontzki from his post as chief rabbi.

In response, an IDF spokesman said that: "Overall, letters that are sent to the chief of staff [such as the request for Rontzki's dismissal] are reviewed and an answer is sent to those who make the request, not to the media."

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