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German army taps chief rabbi for 1st time in a century, 76 years after Holocaust

Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer (Zsolt) Balla says he will ‘help all Jews live a Jewish life,’ and will aim to curb far-right extremism; new military rabbinate budgeted 5 million euros

Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer (Zsolt) Balla, appointed as the chief rabbi of the German army, speaks to the Kan public broadcaster on June 3, 2021. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer (Zsolt) Balla, appointed as the chief rabbi of the German army, speaks to the Kan public broadcaster on June 3, 2021. (Screenshot: YouTube)

For the first time in 100 years and 76 years after the Holocaust ended, the German Army will appoint a chief rabbi and other rabbis to its military chaplaincy.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer (Zsolt) Balla’s appointment ceremony will take place in Leipzig in three weeks’ time, according to several reports said this week. At least ten other rabbis will also be appointed to various positions in the German army, the reports said.

“It is a great responsibility. We need to help all Jews [in the army] live a Jewish life, if they are looking for Kosher food, if they are looking for the opportunity to pray,” Balla told the Kan public broadcaster on Thursday.

Germany budgeted 5 million euros to establish the army’s new chief military rabbinate, Kan said.

The German army does not document the religious affiliations of its members. But according to estimates, about 300 Jews, 1,400 Muslims and 94,000 Christians are in the Bundeswehr armed forces, German media reported.

Balla told Kan he can’t say for sure how many Jews serve in the military, and the report said the true number could be lower than 300.

Germany’s armed forces have over the years repeatedly come under fire as far-right cells were discovered among its ranks, including in elite units.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the Special Forces (KSK) of the German army show an exercise in Calw, southwestern Germany, February 5, 2004. (Thomas Kienzle/AP/File)

In March, a German soldier and a relative were arrested on suspicion of illegally hoarding weapons and expressing far-right sympathies.

Germany’s defense minister last year ordered the partial dissolution of the elite KSK commando force over right-wing extremism.

The Military Counter-Intelligence Service said in 2020 that some 600 Bundeswehr soldiers were suspected of right-wing extremism, including 20 in the elite unit.

In April 2017, revelers at a farewell party for a KSK commander allegedly threw pig heads, played right-wing rock music, and made the Nazi salute.

In 2018, then-defense minister Ursula von der Leyen ordered the military to cleanse itself of all links to the Wehrmacht after learning that steel helmets and memorabilia of the Nazi-era army were openly displayed at one of its barracks.

She also ordered some barracks still named after World War II figures to be renamed.

“Currently, they have nothing to do with Judaism, they don’t understand what Judaism is. They don’t know what goes on in Israel, everything they know is from the media,” Balla said when asked about the far-right and antisemitism occurrences in the army.

“This is also part of the education that we need to bring,” he said.

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