A day before new beard regulations go into force in the IDF, the military has been flooded with at least 20,000 requests for an exemption from more stringent shaving requirements.
The regulations would only grant permission for a beard to soldiers who could prove that they were religious and produce the signed approval of certain high-ranking officers.
“We don’t want to harm the sensitivities of any soldier,” IDF Spokesman Moti Almoz said in a statement on his Facebook page. “A religious soldier who requests to grow a beard will appeal to his commender, as will any other soldier who wants to grow a beard for other reasons. On the other hand, it’s impossible to maintain a disciplined military when everyone grows a beard, and therefore we’ve set clearer rules.”
The military police has been charged with enforcing the beard ban. Violations could result in fines and other penalties such as confinement to base, but not corporal punishment.
According to a recent poll in the IDF newspaper Bamahane, a quarter of soldiers are expected to lose permission to grow a beard. Just under 30% of soldiers are exempted from shaving, and just 6% for religious reasons.
In a bid to assuage concerns among religiously observant Jewish soldiers, an IDF source told Channel 2 that there would be no cases of religious soldiers being forced to shave against their will.
The tighter protocols set to take effect March 1 prompted one influential rabbi to compare the new directive to Nazi-occupied Europe, where Jewish men were forbidden from growing facial hair. He called on soldiers to refuse orders to shave even if it meant serving time in military prison.
“These are dark days for the IDF,” said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leader of the nationalist-Haredi, or Hardal, movement, a fundamentalist offshoot of religious Zionism that embraces ultra-Orthodox religious mores.
In a halachic responsum on the website Srugim, he invoked a “famous picture depicting two Jews, while German soldiers force one of them to shave the other’s beard in front of the amused onlookers.”
“We want to put an end to cases in which soldiers received permission to grow beards for religious reasons, but walked around smoking on Saturdays, or drove,” showing they were not in fact religious, one officer from the Manpower Department told the Ynet news site in July.
Said Aviner, “It doesn’t say anywhere that a nonreligious Jew has to shave, except in Nazi Germany.”
In November, the High Court of Justice turned back petitions against the beard ban, insisting the military’s decision to enforce a clean-shaven look among the troops was legal and reasonable and maintaining that the IDF had to uphold military discipline. The petitioners had claimed that the order was discriminatory and contravened their religious beliefs.
Aviner said the IDF’s claim that “a soldier whose appearance is unkempt won’t function as well” was untrue.
“One can be bearded and neat and beardless and unkempt,” he asserted. “All of the world’s armies feature, as they have in the past, bearded generals and officers, and these have led to victories.”
Aviner said that a soldier ordered to shave his beard should refuse, “even if he will receive one hundred lashes and go to prison” as a result.
Aviner has in the past made waves with his comments on gender roles, notably in October 2012, when he instructed his followers that women should not engage in politics or run for Knesset because it transgresses Jewish modesty laws.
“Women should not hold senior positions in the Knesset, as it is immodest,” he said at the time, according to the religious news site Kipa. “Public exposure is contrary to the Jewish view of the woman, whereby ‘the king’s daughter is all glorious within.'” He later clairified that he had been speaking of the “ideal” situation rather than everyday reality.