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Israel names new chief military rabbi

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Israel on Wednesday appointed a new chief military rabbi to replace a polarizing figure critics say injected a militant mix of religion and nationalism into the secular institution.

The new cleric is seen as more moderate than his predecessor, but he’s clearly no liberal. Lt. Col. Rafi Peretz is a former Jewish settler in the Gaza Strip and opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the territory.

The transition comes amid worries from some quarters that the military rabbinate has increasingly been promoting ultranationalist, religious ideology in the army, a traditionally secular institution that embodies Israeli consensus.

During an interview on Israel Radio on Wednesday, Peretz spoke only generally about how he plans to do the job.

“I want to try to connect soldiers to their Jewish pride and their foundations here and our return home after 2000 years,” he said.

He dodged questions about whether women and gays should do military service — issues that sparked criticism of the retiring chief, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki.

While previous rabbis confined themselves to tasks like enforcing kosher food laws and officiating at funerals, Rontzki was criticized during his four-year term for stoking ultranationalist sentiment and opposing military service for gays. He denied accusations that he spoke against service for women.

“The top brass will breathe a sigh of relief at his departure, due mainly to his divisive character,” Amos Harel wrote on Wednesday in Israel’s Haaretz daily. “While many religious officers loved him, his controversial statements often outraged secular officers.”

Rontzki often said religious soldiers fight better, Harel wrote. In November, he told a group religious students, “Cursed is the person who has mercy for his enemy during war.”

Peretz, a former helicopter pilot and father of 12, currently heads the same religious seminary he directed in the Gaza Strip, though it is now located in Israel’s Negev desert.

He won the praise of senior officers during the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 by encouraging his students to protest peacefully, even though he opposed the move. And when soldiers arrived to evacuate the academy, Peretz embraced their commander.

Rabbis have always been a visible component of military life. But as the political clout of religious Israelis has grown in recent years, so has the sensitivity of secular Israelis to signs of religious influence in state institutions.

The military does not keep statistics on religious affiliation, but it is clear that more religious Jews are making their way up the ranks. Some estimates say a quarter of the troops now completing combat officers’ training are religious, though the top brass remains overwhelmingly secular.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved Peretz’s appointment. Peretz will be promoted to Brigadier General upon taking the new position in the next few months.

Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

© 2010 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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