During my army service I was stationed in the West Bank, where one of my unit’s objectives was to guard the areas between Jewish settlements and Arab villages. Guard shifts usually lasted two hours and on cold nights settlers living close by would bring soldiers hot tea and lecture us about the importance of the land to the Jewish people. On one occasion, one of these settlers approached my friend, a religious soldier, and the two soon found out they were distant cousins. After they discovered their family connection and after the settler saw my friend’s Yarmulke and Talit, the conversation became more comfortable, and eventually the settler asked my friend if he would be ready, when the time comes, to "refuse orders."
He was referring to orders to dismantle and relocate settlements deemed illegal under Israeli law.
I am confident that my religious friend would act according to the orders of our officers and not those of his religious cousin. But when it comes to other soldiers, I'm not so sure.
The army is already engaged in a struggle against emboldened religiousness. Haredim have proven that the rabbi’s word comes before those of military commanders. And if the Israel Defense Forces were to increase the number of extreme religious soldiers, it would introduce a new, ultra-Orthodox agenda to the military that, at some point, would work against the army’s - and the state’s - agenda. If the ultra-Orthodox are incapable of adapting to the civilian standards of a free, democratic society, how could we expect Haredi soldiers to abide by the secular standards of our military?
Increased Haredi presence in the army will not bridge the gap between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis. Instead, it will bring the problems that already divide Israeli society to the military, and the military is not built to handle it.
For more than a decade the secular community has been responsible for protecting the country - including the ultra-Orthodox - as a result of the Tal Law. And while it stands to reason that the ultra-Orthodox community should be equally affected by the burdens of a free society, including compulsory military service, the IDF cannot become another arena for the ultra-Orthodox onslaught against civic equality. If the Haredim gain a larger role in the IDF, the army risks losing its ethical standards to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox, and any friction in the military will greatly limit its effectiveness.
One of the primary tenets of the army is the demand that each soldier sacrifices his or her individual identity for the sake of the group. Listening to new authority figures, existing outside one’s comfort zone, and adjusting to unfamiliar circumstances are all a part of every soldier’s development. Everyone sacrifices. Religious soldiers are often under especially great pressure to put the army’s needs before their religious obligations, sacrifices that assure the army’s cohesion and ability, guaranteeing its power. But ultra-Orthodox soldiers will face even greater pressure to adjust. And it is clear that the ultra-Orthodox are incapable of that adjustment.
The past several months have proven this already: in December of last year, a mob of angry settlers stormed a base in the West Bank, injuring one officer. It was an act of aggression against the military and the state for clearing illegal West Bank outposts. In January of this year, religious soldiers abandoned ceremonies with female singers in protest of their being forced to listen. Their “commander” was not their IDF officer, but Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who holds no position in the military at all. In both of these cases, the military proved incapable of addressing the blatant disregard of the law by the ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
The IDF cannot afford to become another battlefield for religious–secular politics. If the Haredim can exert pressure on the government with disobedience from within the army, then the secular, democratic principles of the IDF will also bend to religious principles. In a state so dependent on security, this could be disastrous.
Ultra-Orthodox policies have no place in this army. The IDF requires its soldiers put the army ahead of everything else and the Haredim themselves have admitted they are incapable of doing this. To enlist them in the IDF would undermine our army’s ethical standards and hurt its primary function: to protect the State of Israel.
Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces until 2011. He currently studies at the International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University and is a contributor to FriendaSoldier.com.
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