Text size

A couple of months ago, D., who had been inducted into the Israel Defense Forces at the end of the summer, was about to finish basic training. She was told by her commanding officer that she could swear allegiance to the IDF by putting her hand on the Bible and reciting the oath, or if her conscience would not let her swear, she could declare her allegiance without the Bible.

D. was undecided. On the one hand, she was not enamored with the link between the IDF and the Bible, and was not enthused by the involvement of the army rabbi. Although D. is secular, she bears no seething hatred toward the religious. She also does not recoil from religious ceremonies or from Jewish tradition. The oath-Bible-rabbi and military rifle combination grated on her sensitivities.

On the other hand, her commander had made it clear that a declaration expresses a lower level of commitment than an oath. Since D. also feels words are important, she felt that the swearing of allegiance was more ceremonial and perhaps more significant. She finally decided, though not wholeheartedly, to swear. Two of her friends, like many other religious girls, chose to declare allegiance because they refused to swear on the Bible.

In recent years the IDF has encountered more and more soldiers who are not capable of swearing on the Bible. Most of them are not specifically die-hard secularists, who like D. are supposed to feel uncomfortable with the use of a religious symbol in a ceremony that is meant to represent the connection between the citizen and the army. Just the opposite - those who are refusing to swear on the Bible are religious, and are unwilling to lay their hand on the Holy Book at a non-religious ceremony and for a purpose that has nothing to do with religion or faith.

Judaism takes swearing an oath very seriously. Religious soldiers are faced with an even more regretful decision than D. Most of them certainly want to express full uncompromising commitment to the army, but the quasi-religious ceremony and the swearing of an oath, which is forbidden by Halakha (Jewish law), limit them.

Others who refuse to swear the oath are also usually people who respect religion, both their own and others. Some of them are not Jewish, and ask to swear on the New Testament or on the Koran. The IDF, which in many other issues exhibits strictness, has for some reason decided to be flexible on this. The army's leaders apparently felt that if Israeli society has become multi-cultural, then the army has to be open to the new multi-faceted spirit.

Thus the IDF swears in its soldiers on three holy books, assisted by military rabbis, but allows the religious to declare their allegiance. During the swearing-in ceremonies the military rabbi reads the first chapter of the Book of Joshua, who sends the Israelite tribes into a great battle to inherit - by force and in strict adherence to the commandments - the land. "Every place where the sole of your foot shall tread, that have I given to you ... from the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the Euphrates River, all the land of the Hittites as far as the great sea toward where the sun sets shall be your border."

A nice ceremony. A place of honor has been reserved for it in the study of literature and the Bible, and also in the hearts of the believers. There is no place for it on the parade ground. Theoretically, this is not a big issue. The IDF manages somehow with the various faiths and obtains the allegiance it needs.

In effect, the weak solutions of the swearing on various books, the declaration and the reading specifically from the Book of Joshua, actually alienate many good-hearted people from the ceremony and what it symbolizes. Instead of a simple festive ceremony, this forced anachronism has been created, dipped in religious sentimentality that the religious are there first to disagree with, while the secular, as is their wont, tolerate it in silence.

This week the Knesset was presented with a bill initiated by MK Yuli Tamir (Labor) to change the IDF order of 1948 such that the words "swearing of allegiance" be replaced by "declaring allegiance."

"At this ceremony a text should be read and distributed that represents the values of the state and is shared by all its citizens," proposes the bill, "and the only text that meets this criterion is the Declaration of Independence."

This bill is meant to solve the imbroglio in which the IDF has become entangled, but if it is passed, it will herald a bit more than that: Perhaps the reading of the Declaration of Independence to the soldiers from various sectors will begin to return the voice of sanity, of civility, to Israeli society, which wants the army to protect democracy as reflected by the values of equality and justice, and not as reflected by the reading of an ancient territorial battle.