German Armed Forces Appoints First Military Rabbi In 88 Years

Rabbi Zsolt Balla told Forces News: "It's a historical weight and I really hope to be able to carry that weight for a better future."

Germany's armed forces has appointed its first military rabbi since the 1930s, amid reports of growing anti-Jewish sentiment in the country.

Zsolt Balla is the first to hold the position in the Bundeswehr since the abolishment of the post in 1933 by the Nazis.

He is also Germany's first non-Christian military to be appointed in almost 90 years.

"I don't see it as a historical burden," Rabbi Balla said.

"It's a historical weight and I really hope to be able to carry that weight for a better future."

He's an orthodox rabbi and the son of a holocaust survivor, with a mother, he says, who fully supports his new role.

He shares her belief that only by confronting the horrors of the past can you look to the future.

Rabbi Balla said he hopes to help change the perception of the German armed forces for the country's Jewish community.

He told Forces News in Leipzig: "After the World War, the Jewish people felt very uncomfortable serving in the Bundeswehr as a general rule. 

"We have to understand that we have a historical burden, and we have to carry this historical burden, but we should also not allow that burden to paralyse us. 

"Our goal is that one day the Bundeswehr will reflect the German society exactly the same way as the armies in the other NATO countries – just as in the Netherlands, or in the United States, or the UK – to make sure that Jews feel comfortable to come and serve in these armed forces," he added.

Zsolt Balla is the first non-Christian military chaplain to be appointed in almost 90 years.

The Rabbi's appointment comes as antisemitism is reportedly rising again in Germany and has prompted protests. 

A commando unit has also had to be partially disbanded after far-right infiltration.

Despite these issues, Rabbi Balla said he felt encouraged by the more open discussion and acknowledgment of the problems.

"I personally believe that hatred, antisemitism, hatred against minorities can never be eliminated from our society and never eliminated from the ranks of the armed forces," he said.

"The only thing what we can do is to isolate these tendencies.

"I'm glad about the fact that these problems have been talked about. It's much better than to sweep these problems under the rug."

Rabbi Balla added that he wants to bring recognition for all the work German military personnel do.

"The population does not recognise the incredible work that they are doing," he said.

"I believe many of the people who have been to the different missions, you know, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Mali... what they do is really incredible.

"For me to sit in Leipzig in my luxury and my peace, and not to worry about anything, this is only due to those amazing soldiers who go in and do these missions, who are ready to sacrifice their lives, their families, in order to safeguard society and this does not get the proper recognition in our society.

"People take everything for granted. This is a grave mistake," he added.

In time, more rabbis are expected to work with the Bundeswehr.

Like all German military chaplains, they won't wear uniform and won't be part of the chain of command.

Rabbi Bala also hopes to provide religious support for Muslim personnel.

Rabbi Balla emphasised that his job is not about recruiting Jewish personnel.

"We're not going to do active recruiting, but I think it's a responsibility on all of us who work for the Bundeswehr to make sure the Bundeswehr has a welcoming atmosphere for everybody, every person, no matter what his faith is, no matter what minority he belongs to. 

"I already experienced that sometimes for a Muslim soldier, it's easier to turn to a Rabbi who might understand the cultural nuances a little bit better than an Evangelical or a Catholic priest.

"This has also happened in the past. So, I really hope to support also the Muslim soldiers in the army."

As it stands, there are no Imams for Muslim soldiers to turn to in the German armed forces.