By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli military is mustering battlefield rabbis in what it calls a campaign to promote religious values in its frontline ranks.
The move, announced in the latest issue of the military's official weekly magazine, Bamahane, drew fire on Monday from one of Israel's most popular newspaper columnists, who cautioned against creating a "God's Army."
Under the plan, a reserve army rabbi will be assigned to every battalion in the military's northern command, whose areas of responsibility include the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
"The assimilation of religion into combat battalions is increasing," said an article in Bamahane, which gave details of the program being implemented after a year-long pilot project.
While rabbis have long served in Israel's military, their roles traditionally have focused on overseeing adherence to Jewish dietary laws in its kitchens, Sabbath observance and religious ceremonies.
Now, the Bamahane article said, "the commander of the Golani (infantry) brigade's Battalion 51 does not move a meter without his rabbi."
The rabbis' roles were expanded in Israel's Gaza war in late 2008 and early 2009, when military chaplains accompanied reserve battalions that invaded the enclave, in a conflict launched with the declared aim of halting militant rocket attacks.
The chaplains distributed Jewish prayer shawls, conducted services before troops went into battle and "offered words of comfort" to the soldiers, the article said.
But according to an army commander's account at the time, some frontline rabbis mixed politics with religion, telling soldiers they were fighting a "religious war" to expel "the gentiles interfering with our conquest of this holy land."
Such talk touched a nerve in the Jewish state, where the army is supposed to be apolitical and the secular majority has complained for decades about the powerful political and social influence of the religious minority on Israeli life.
In the new program, which goes into effect in August, the battalion rabbis have been ordered to serve as examples of "educational and moral values," the Bamahane article said.
Writing in Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, columnist Nahum Barnea compared the rabbis to political commissars planted by the Communist Party in the now-defunct Soviet army.
"Israel Defense Forces battalions do not need commissars. They need good commanders, good training and weapons in good working order," he wrote, calling for "fewer inflammatory speeches" and "less hateful propaganda."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)