JERUSALEM - Israel's long-running struggle to balance modern standards with Jewish tradition has come to a head in the military, where new orders curtailing beards among soldiers have met protests from some rabbis.
Many Orthodox Jewish men go unshaven, a religious observance that Israel's armed forces accommodates. But in recent years, many secular soldiers have also grown beards, a trend that new orders going into effect on Tuesday aim to combat.
Under revised rules, all soldiers will require advance approval from their commanders, rather than military chaplains, to sport a beard. Religious troops can expect to receive permission, but some rabbis complain about the heightened scrutiny.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank described facial hair as an emblem of Jewish fighters from the time of biblical King David. He said soldiers should refuse to obey any shaving orders. "You can be clean and orderly with a beard, and you can be slovenly without a beard," Aviner told Srugim, a religious Jewish news site.
In a comment that drew headlines on Israeli news websites, Aviner said the military edict reminded him of photographs from the Nazi era showing Jews being forcibly shaved by Germans.
Of requests for beards made so far, 42 percent have been granted on grounds of piety while other applicants were rejected for trying to "hitch a ride" and shirk shaving, chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Motti Almoz told Army Radio.
Almoz argued that freedom of faith had to be weighed against avoiding slovenliness in the conscript ranks, something he said was brought home to him by comparing Israeli troops to U.S. counterparts now visiting the country for an air defence drill. "There is proof that, in terms of appearance and discipline, and at times in operational circumstances, having soldiers with beards is not how a military should look," Almoz said.
The dispute has reached into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, where religious Jewish parties are powerful partners.
Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a lawmaker from the Jewish Home party and the deputy defence minister, told another religious news outlet, Kol Hazman, that the beard order was "unreasonable and illogical" and could hinder efforts to enlist ultra-Orthodox Jews who are generally exempted from the draft.
But with Israel's Supreme Court having struck down an appeal last year against the new regulations, Almoz pledged to prosecute soldiers unwilling to carry out orders to shave.