One morning in June 1999, a group of ultra-Orthodox recruits in Platoon 1 were asked to take out their canteens and drink. "Everyone drink half a canteen - I don't want you dehydrating on me," ordered the squad leader.
It was only their third day within the close confines of the Israel Defense Forces, but it seemed as if the boundaries had already been set. In the eyes of the Haredi soldiers, the squad leader had begun to embody the leftist secularism they reviled. With his archetypal pose of hands on hips and recurrent calls for "Attention!" he represented the same unabashed masculinity that disgusted them so.
After this long and frenetic morning, the Haredi recruits issued their response to the Israeli army and its style with a spontaneous roared rendition of the "Shehakol nihiya b'dvaro" blessing that is recited before drinking water, among other foods. Only when the blessing had been shouted to its conclusion, in front of the thunderstruck squad commander, did they comply with his order to drink.
Yohai Hakak chose to begin his article about Haredi basic training, entitled "From the Tent of Torah to the Tent Encampment of Recruits," with a description of this particular skirmish. Hakak's fascinating study is unlike any previous contemplation of the curious and tension-filled encounter between ultra-Orthodox and army.
The article was presented last weekend at an international conference on gender, religion and social change in the Middle East," which was held at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Bergen, in Norway. The study describes basic training as a collision between two different cultures - that of the IDF and that of ultra-Orthodoxy.
Hakak, a doctoral student in the department of social work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, accompanied the trainees for a full month, until the completion of their basic training course. The very vocal blessing over the water portended, he says, the type of relationship that subsequently developed between the Haredi recruits and the military. "Squad commander Yaniv's request from the recruits to shout `Attention' louder is part of the regimen and discipline process that every group of trainees undergoes, and it is his job to adapt their bodies and behavior to the needs of the military system," writes Hakak. "The recruits' choice to shout out the blessing on the water hints at the complexity of the encounter with the training staff and their search for a source of power or autonomy within the restrictive and demanding military framework."
Hakak considers the shouted blessing to be a subversive act. "They use the squad commander's request that they shout as loud as they can, to register their own, unique, Haredi voice."
The squad commander's wordless astonishment at his soldiers' show of chutzpa will progressively increase in the course of the basic training, and subsequently turn into feelings of humiliation and frustration.
The IDF's soldier-teacher program (which operates under the aegis of the Education Corps) is one of three tracks designed for Haredim who enlist. The others are the Haredi Nahal battalion and "Shlav Bet," (Stage 2) a track for those serving an abbreviated period of four months in the army. Generally speaking, unmarried men enlist in Nahal Haredi, which first began in 2000 and is considered a more combat-oriented and demanding track. Shlav Bet usually attracts young men with two children or more or who are 29 or older. Conversely, most of the soldier-teachers are young and recently married.
The soldier-teacher track group that went through the general IDF basic training course in June 1999 included 52 new recruits between the ages of 21 and 28, half of whom were Sephardi. The Ashkenazim included five Hasidim who functioned as sort of "mashgihim" (in the Haredi jargon, this refers to the yeshiva functionaries who are responsible for maintaining the spiritual dimension). Aside from five unmarried men, all of the other recruits were married.
Most of the enlisted men had studied in ordinary Haredi yeshivas. Some were graduates of Haredi yeshiva high schools or were newly religious Jews who had also absorbed the values of Haredi education and internalized the ideal of earning one's livelihood from Torah study.
These young men chose to go through basic training after having decided to leave their kollels (yeshiva for adult males, where the student draws a small salary), due to their wish to enter the Israeli job market. The official reason for their decision may have been economic, but many of the young men also described a sort of weariness of Talmud studies, and had made a conscious choice to find a different lifestyle, one less ascetic than that of a yeshiva student.
"I came here because I wanted to make a life for myself," confessed one recruit.
The IDF's soldier-teacher program offers considerable security. The salary paid to a soldier-teacher is higher than the kollel salary: NIS 4,000 after taxes. According toHakak, most of the soldiers also qualify for income supplements from the National Insurance Institute.
The soldiers must do occasional training at rifle ranges and perform additional tasks, such as running religious ceremonies or guarding army bases. At present, there are some 200 soldier-teachers, 100 assigned to the Independent (Haredi) education system and 100 to the Shas movement's Maayan Torah education system.
The soldier-teachers enlisted because of the advantages that service offers them. They took pains to let Hakak understand that their enlistment was not at all motivated by ideology and that they were not performing a civil obligation, God forbid. For them, it was a default choice, and if they only could, they would have continued to sit and study Torah.
At the same time, oddly enough, they were infused with a childish reverence for weapons, for the Rambo-ism of the army. Most of them had seen the film "Operation Entebbe" and had read books that for whatever reason had been sanctioned by their religious authorities and had been passed from one to the other, such as "A Soldier's Story" by former IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan.
Due to this ambivalent attitude toward the army, says Hakak, and especially because of their sense of being in a sort of exile - isolated in the IDF world - they developed closer ties among themselves, in spite of the natural divisions between Hasidim and Lithuanians and
Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and put up a united front.
This defensive posture soon took on the hues of a religious struggle over kashruth or prayer times, and according to the researcher, generated a process of religious strengthening among many of them.
Hakak draws parallels between the military and the yeshiva systems: "These young people arrive in a disciplined and regimented framework after having been raised in all-embracing institutions that provide room and board and have clear and rigid requirements. The systems have similar conditions and requirements," he says.
Basic training is supposed to turn a civilian into a soldier, explains Hakak, through neutralization of individualism and emphasis on a uniform soldierly identity. The new recruits related derisively to this process and to the difficulties it presents. Throughout their lives, they had been wearing uniforms, worn their hair short, obeyed rigid rules. As a counter-force, they began to emphasize external aspects of their identity, which stood out against the background of outward military appearance as a unique type of trademark (wild beards among the Hasidim, for instance).
It may have been assumed that these young people, accustomed to the system of rabbinic supervision, would integrate well into a military framework, but the IDF discipline process seems to have failed, and instead created an unremitting atmosphere of subversiveness among the Haredi recruits.
"It reminded me of Jews in the Diaspora," says Hakak. "Indirect expressions of power in place of aggressiveness and frontal conflict."
A war for identity
There are a few factors that may explain the failure, such as the age disparity or intellectual disparity between the young commanders and the Haredi recruits, most of whom already had families of their own. But Hakak sees it as a collision between opposing values, such as the reliance on physical force represented by the IDF, and the religious ideal of security through the help of God.
He asserts that the failure stems mainly from the military's inability to understand that for the Haredi recruits in the IDF situation, this was a war for religious identity. "The military system does not stop at imparting skills or even education, but tries to blur and to erase the previous identity that the yeshiva education is trying to build," says Hakak. At that point, they go on the defensive. "As soon as you have created an other who is the commander, and he is stupid and devoid of all values, it is easy to channel criticism, derision and aggressiveness at him - and to keep your own house pure. This creates clear boundaries, and that is the basis of Haredi society."
In addition, there is immense difference between the Israeli/military model of masculinity and the model of Haredi masculinity represented by the yeshiva student, says Hakak. Based on this diversity, the cultural gaps were once again more clearly defined. Young Haredim disapproved of the frequent use of shouting as a tool for policing and intimidation, and in general of the gruffer aspects of IDF assertiveness. "The yeshiva student is stooped over, pale, and expresses a submissive, unaggressive, masculinity," says Hakak.
Even if not all Haredi youths fit this archetypal Haredi image, they recoil at the masculine model that espouses a show of force. "In every society there is a single homogenous masculine model," says Hakak.
Societies usually offer alternative male models, but in Haredi society, by imposing harsh restrictions, the rabbis are trying to uphold a single model of masculinity. In this case, simply by going into the army the, recruits are declaring that they do not meet that ideal, and at the same time, their decisions and their identity are still affected by this model.
Hakak says that during the basic training course, a process of change nevertheless occurred. Some of the recruits unburdened themselves a bit, by adopting a less rigid body language. There were those, especially among the bachelors, who initiated a sort of flirtation with the female commanders on the base, which only substantiated the rabbis' concerns about the dangers of close contact with the army and with secular Israeliness.
But when all is said and done, Hakak concludes that the military situation in fact provided an opportunity for religious strengthening and the consolidation of forces in the struggle over religious issues, which exacerbated the tension and friction with the commanders. "You could say that the collisions along the religious front constituted a sort of "kiddush hashem" (sanctification of God's name), due to the willingness of the Haredi recruits to suffer in order to defend their religious principles. Instead of running away from base, like Golani recruits might do, they inform the commanders that they will be holding a sort of passive hunger strike," as happened several times during the basic training course when they were not satisfied with the level of kashrut.
The seizing on religion as a unifying factor caused (as opposed to the ordinary process in basic training, at the end of which the "distance" between commanders and recruits disappears) a deeper breach between the soldiers and commanders.
"If basic training is a sort of apprenticeship ritual, in which the tribal elders put the young people through a web of suffering in order to usher them into adulthood, the opposite happened here," says Hakak.
"The commanders went through a ritual of humiliation and felt that they were being made fun of. A group of hopeless incompetents arrives, and all these tough guys are besides themselves."
At a staff meeting held at the end of basic training, platoon commander Kobi summed up his lessons. "From the start, we should have been a lot tougher with them. We simply had to keep on a very short leash."
The fresh soldiers saw the commanders' frustrations as a sign of victory. Hakak asserts that for the Haredi recruits, the basic training course gave them a sense of superiority and confidence in their abilities, because they proved to their tough-guy commanders that even a group of hopeless incompetents who came from the tent of Torah could give them a good hazing.
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