The Israel Defense Forces has allegedly taken action to end its persecution of observant soldiers exempted from shaving facial hair for religious reasons.
The IDF announced Tuesday it would change its procedures following the imprisonment of Yaakov Biblau, a soldier from a Chabad-Lubavitch family who refused to shave his beard.
Biblau was serving as a computer and electronics engineer in the air force when he arrived at a new IAF base and was ordered by his commander to shave. Biblau explained that he had a permit to grow the beard, which he had worn since beginning his service and which the military rabbi knew of. His commander was unmoved and revoked the permit. He also prosecuted Biblau for refusing to obey a direct order.
The soldier argued in return that it was not reasonable to force him to remove the beard prior to clarification from higher authorities. He called the hotline of the IDF Chief Rabbinate, which informed him that he had a right not to shave. Regardless, the IAF commander placed Biblau on trial and convicted him of refusal to obey an order. He was sentenced to 10 days in prison.
That same commander has been known to harass other observant soldiers as well, according to Bayit Yehudi MK Moti Yogev, who contacted Chief IDF Rabbi Brig.-GEn. Rafi Peretz about the case. Yogev wrote in his letter that the relevant commander should be reprimanded for his “unwise conduct.” In response, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit replied that “the Air Force procedures have been changed following the incident.”
At present, any officer at lieutenant-general rank and above has the right to reject a soldier’s exemption from shaving, according to a report by the Hebrew-language Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper.
Up to this point, such officers also have had the right to place such soldiers on trial, without first checking to see whether the facial hair is legitimately worn.
From this point on, officers will be able to double-check the authorization of a shaving exemption and the legitimacy of a soldier’s contention he is keeping his beard for religious reasons.
However, no officer will have the right to force a soldier to shave; nor will the soldier be punished before a decision is made by authorized officials.
The government has authorized a change in the laws to expand the draft of hareidi religious Jews. But there are still many adjustments that must be made in order to enable both the secular and observant populations to work together seamlessly. Harassment of observant Jews by secular commanders is not a new phenomenon. The myriad problems involved have long been responsible for many hareidim choosing to avoid military service, rather than having to choose between proper observance of Torah law, or disobeying a frivolous order from an unfair commander.