German army appoints first rabbi as religious counsellor in 100 years

The German army has installed its first rabbi as a religious counsellor in 100 years, in a symbol of the renewal of Jewish life decades after the Holocaust.

Priests and pastors are already providing religious services to the estimated 94,000 Christians in the military.

But the equivalent has not been available to Jewish soldiers, who number around 300.

Taking up the post on Monday, Hungarian-born Zsolt Balla, 42, underlined what he described as a “historic responsibility” to serve Jewish soldiers.

The father of three told public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk he wanted make them feel “just as integral” to the armed forces as their counterparts in countries such as the United States, Britain and France.

“That is our goal,” said Balla, who has lived in Germany since 2002.

Balla said this included working to root out antisemitism and other forms of hatred from the ranks of the armed forces “with good work, conversations and exchange”.

He said he would continue to serve his congregation in Leipzig, on the board of the Orthodox rabbis conference and as state rabbi of Saxony alongside his military responsibilities.

The defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced the plans in December 2019, saying she wanted to send “an important message to our Jewish soldiers” and stress that “Jewish life is self-evident in our country”.

Religious counsellors in the army offer advice on ethical issues and accompany soldiers as they carry out training or further education.

More military rabbis are to join Balla in future and there have been proposals to put in place a religious counsellor for the 3,000 Muslim soldiers.

However, talks have been held up because there is no central coordinating institution representing the community.

Germany’s armed forces have over the years been repeatedly criticised over suspicions that some members have far-right sympathies.

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

Most recently, Kramp-Karrenbauer vowed to take decisive action against cases of radicalism in the security forces after a string of scandals over far-right networks in the police and military.

Germany’s military counter-intelligence service said last year some 600 Bundeswehr soldiers were suspected of rightwing extremism.

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