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In Israeli army, rabbis deepen religious tone. Is that kosher?

One told soldiers in a pep talk during the Gaza war that their holiness would preserve them in the battle between the 'children of light' and the 'children of darkness.'

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2009

Chief Army Rabbi Avichai Rontzki. Israel's military rabbinate, once tasked mainly with mundane missions like making sure army kitchens have kosher pots, has begun to assert its own version of Jewish virtue, and in the process is becoming the latest flashpoint in the country's culture wars.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

In the final days before his infantry platoon entered Gaza last January against Hamas, "M." and his reservist buddies were approached by a representative of the military rabbinate. Would they be interested in a chat with a military clergyman during a break in training?

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With no objections, they were introduced to a "Rabbi Chen," dressed in civilian clothes and red-bearded, who told the soldiers that "holiness of the people of Israel" would keep them safe.

The chat marked a more concerted effort by chief rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki and the military rabbinate – traditionally simply a provider of such services as kosher food – to reach the hearts and minds of soldiers. But what disturbed M., who requested anonymity for fear of a court martial, was what he saw as a violation of the army's code of ethics and ideological agnosticism.

Beyond charges of misconduct and war crimes, Israel's recent war in Gaza against Hamas fanned accusations that Mr. Rontzki is trying to remake the soldiers in his own hard-line religious nationalist image. At stake, critics warn, is the possible politicization of a military built as a people's army above the political fray.

"All these activities of the chief rabbi totally contradict the norms and morals of our army. We were raised on a humanistic army," says Ran Cohen, a former parliamentarian from the secular left-wing party, Meretz. "The minute our soldier will be educated as an antihumanistic soldier, it will destroy his moral resolve. That is why it is dangerous, because it can change the character of the army."

Beyond love of country, the core values of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) stress human dignity, life, and purity of arms – concepts meant to restrain force against noncombatants as well as proportionality.

But Chen said that "we should remember that this war is not just a regular war. It's the war of the children of light against the children of darkness.... My first interpretation was that we are fighting a messianic war," says M., a reserve combat medic who hails from an Orthodox Jewish community in a West Bank settlement. "For me, that completely contradicts the codes of war I learned as a young soldier. Those ideals were dear to me."

Pamphlet urged soldiers to show no mercy to 'cruel'

Soon after the war, the liberal Haaretz newspaper published excerpts from a pamphlet available in military synagogues that featured quotes from rabbinical scholars who argued that Palestinians were tantamount to foreigners and that soldiers should show no mercy to "the cruel."

The pamphlet was printed by the rabbinate's department for "Jewish awareness," a new unit set up by Rontzki to help with outreach.

To be sure, Israel is not the only country where military chaplains discuss battlefield morals and the justification of war. In the United Kingdom, military clergy lead discussions about war crimes and international conventions on war, says Tel Aviv University professor Asa Kasher, author of "The IDF Spirit," a code of military ethics.

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