Between Commander and Commandment: Is the IDF Becoming More Religious?

A new book presents a wealth of views related to the religionization of the Israel's army and society – and they should disturb anyone who defines himself as Israeli.

Yuval Elbashan
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Yuval Elbashan

 “Beyn Hakippa Lekumta: Dat, Politika Vetzava Beyisrael” (“Between the Yarmulke and the Beret”), edited by Reuven Gal, Modan Publishing House, 626 pp., NIS 128

At first, I thought it was just a coincidence that recently it seems like everyone has been measuring the distance between the furry shtreimel worn by Hasidim and the knitted skullcap worn by Zionist Orthodox men - and between the two of them and the beret worn by Israeli soldiers. Then I read this book, a collection of 22 articles on the interrelationship between religion, politics and the military in Israel, and I changed my mind.

The measuring is not taking place by chance. The tension among the three types of headgear, and also between them and women’s exposed hair, as will be revealed further on, has existed in Israeli society since the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces. At that time there was a debate about what was to be the structure of the army, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion - who opposed the concept of sectarian units - spearheaded the mixing of religious and secular in the framework of making the IDF a people’s army.

This stood in contrast, for example, to the solution the Indian army found to a similar problem: It developed homogeneous ethnic units, such as the Sikh brigades, where soldiers observe their religious way of life and are stationed only in places where they will not be asked to act against the interests of their own communities - a solution described at length in an essay by Elisheva Rosman-Stollman. Ben-Gurion decided otherwise, due to the perception of the IDF as a major “melting pot” for the new Israeli.

Military historian Ze’ev Drori describes in his article how Ben-Gurion resisted rabbis’ demands to establish separate frameworks for religious soldiers, agreeing instead to impose observance of basic religious laws ‏(kashrut, Sabbath observance and so on‏) on the entire IDF. At that time the prime minister established that “IDF loyalty is to the government and to the supreme [military] command alone, with no connection to political parties or to any Torah-religious authority outside the army’s ranks. The orders of the military commander prevail and this is the highest instance, with the military consideration preferred over religious consideration.”

In his personal diary, Ben-Gurion wrote: “Our army will be uniform, without streams in it. For the sake of uniformity, we will all commit to kashrut, we will instill a Jewish atmosphere and [observance of] the Sabbath, and we will educate to mutual respect - so that a soldier who does not pray will not mock another who lays tefillin.”

Only after Ben-Gurion’s era did change come about: In 1965, Kerem B’Yavneh, the first hesder yeshiva ‏(in which religious studies are combined with military service‏), was accredited by the army; by 1998 there were already 30 such institutions. In any event, the tempestuous public debate surrounding religion and the IDF in 2013 is tantamount to something routine that testifies to the rule and nothing more.

The official trigger for collecting the articles in this book, however, is probably the growing sense among all those involved with the IDF that the skullcap is beginning to overshadow the beret. In professional language, the phenomenon is referred to as “religionization” - meaning the strengthening of the religious elements within an organization, the opposite of the process of secularization. The issue of whether there is increasing religiosity in the IDF sparks many questions that demand answers.

From the demographic perspective, for instance, the question arises as to whether there has really been an increase in the proportion of religious soldiers in the army, and in particular, at the command levels. More important, is this rise in proportion to the current religionization that Israeli society in general has been experiencing?

Other questions have to do with the ideological-political aspects of the process. Is the religionization of the IDF the result of an intentional plan to advance certain political and ideological viewpoints ‏(i.e., the need for religious people to take leadership positions; the desire to strengthen religious beliefs; the prevention of possible future evacuation of territories by the IDF, and so on‏) - or does this process stem from the abandonment of powerful positions by secular elites?

Another issue being investigated has to do with the cultural and ritual aspects of the religionization process. There are many examples: the debate last year over the wording of the memorial prayer for soldiers - would it say “God will remember” or “Israel will remember”; incidents in which fringed ritual undergarments were given out to soldiers as an “alternative” to flak jackets, or tefillin instead of helmets; battle heritage lessons in which junior officers declared that, “our matriarch Rachel saved soldiers in Operation Cast Lead”; and in general, a rise in the power of so-called IDF religion officers, who have been forced upon soldiers as spiritual guides.

Thus, for example, in his article, political scientist Dr. Tamir Libel, who is also assistant editor of the collection, relates the story of a religious soldier who was shocked to find that, before soldiers entered Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, in early 2009, a rabbi in civilian clothing came to the Tze’elim base in the Negev and exhorted them that, “the fighting in Gaza is a war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness ... An aura of holiness will envelop us in the war.” On that same occasion, a pamphlet was distributed on behalf of the IDF Rabbinate that stated, “It is prohibited to give up a single millimeter of the soil of the Land of Israel,” and also that cruelty toward the enemy “is sometimes a virtue.”

To this can be added the missionary aspect of hazara betshuva - encouraging a “return” to religion. “Between the Yarmulke and the Beret” brings up a wealth of related questions, and they should disturb not only people in uniform, but also everyone who defines himself as Israeli.

New religion

There’s probably not a great deal of dispute surrounding the manifestations of religionization in the army. ‏(And why should there be? After all, anyone who’s served as an IDF reserves officer for over 20 years, like this writer, can testify to the tremendous change the army has been undergoing of late, starting with “orders” from rabbis concerning what they consider the appropriate way to integrate women into army service, or about the photos of rabbis that should replace pictures of women in the lockers of master sergeants‏). What there are, however, are a multiplicity of opinions concerning the interpretation of these phenomena.

Editors Gal, the former chief psychologist of the IDF, and Libel tried to avoid taking a dour, judgmental stand, one that sees the religionization process as either positive or negative. Therefore, the book has been divided into several sections, the main ones being “Mountains” and “Shadows of Mountains” - the Hebrew equivalent of mountains versus molehills.

The first part presents studies by those who believe religionization is a serious problem that must be dealt with before it is too late - that Israel is facing “a military putsch and a civil war {instigated} by national religious circles against government decisions.” The second section features research by those who believe these claims to be exaggerated or mistaken. The other studies included run the gamut between these two approaches.

Ze’ev Drori, a former longtime army officer turned academic, who is among those who see religionization as a real “mountain,” argues that since the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977, “Doctrines have begun to arise that compete with the veteran security doctrine known as ‘the religion of national security.’” That religion, he notes, has given way to “the religion of redemption,” whose adherents feel they have a kind of obligation to rebel against the institutions of the government and the army if they operate contrary to “the strictures of religion or the absolute rights that have been by granted by virtue of a divine promise.”

This approach has led to the legitimization of Orthodox soldiers who refuse to obey orders that clash with what they see as religious precepts, and at the same time also reinforces the desire of their leaders to send young men in knitted yarmulkes to conquer the heart of the security establishment.

The first test of the new religion Drori talks about was in the days of the so-called “disengagement” from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, in 2005, when certain rabbis called for soldiers to refuse to obey IDF orders. Some researchers see the results as proof that religionization is not really taking place, since, after all, the calls did not really have much effect as only 63 soldiers refused to obey orders. But Drori is not swayed. According to him, “Those researchers are minimizing the effect of the damage to IDF discipline in light of many efforts by the IDF to prevent refusal to obey orders during the operation,” including the distancing of certain units in which there were many skullcap-wearing soldiers from the first circle that dealt physically with the evacuation.

Drori also raises a difficult question in the wake of this conduct: “How can a unified national army be reconciled with the selective assignment of tasks to units that are of a religious or sectarian nature? The willingness on the part of the IDF to reach a compromise with the national-religious camp poses problems of principle to the commanders.”

Moreover, Drori details many cases of intervention by outside rabbis in matters that are not their concern, noting for example the cessation of maneuvers every time they show up for a visit as though they were the “landlords,” obligating secular soldiers to participate in religious activities in the guise of Zionist education, and more. His conclusion? “The IDF has lost some of its military professionalism and command independence ... The senior command echelon is not strong enough,” and therefore it is creating a kind of joint managerial body with the rabbis.

Army of peace

The most fascinating article in this collection is the one by sociologists Udi Lebel and Shoshana Lovish-Omer. According to them, the process of religionization should be seen less as a religious process per se, and more as a conservative reaction to post-modern trends in the IDF since the 1990s, among them its deployment as a so-called army of peace - undertaking nonbelligerent missions like peacekeeping, providing medical aid and doing other “humanitarian military” tasks; moderating its use of force; and internalizing certain principles of combat that will be defensible in international courts of justice.

The authors go on to argue that, with respect to its discourse, the army these days places a higher value on concepts like “consciousness shaping” and on achieving the “appearance of victory” than on real victory on the battlefield. Moreover, according to them, with respect to its doctrine, the army is now giving preference to keeping the soldier away from the battlefield and preferring long-distance combat to coming in contact with the enemy, because of the fear of fatalities. This would suggest that minimizing losses is just as important as achieving the aims of battle.

Finally, they write that militarily, “because of the absence of legitimacy at home to the risk of endangering soldiers, and from abroad to the harming of bystanders in enemy territory - the shapers of combat have to make do with managing conflicts at a low level of force, rather than with determining decisive outcomes to conflicts.”

According to Lebel and Lovish-Omer, the army’s heads have decided to inculcate the ranks with these concepts out of a desire to maintain the support of the old army elites ‏(which have themselves undergone a change in values‏): that is, the writers argue that the process of religionization is in fact just one form of a greater reaction, and constitutes one aspect of the return of a conservative-minded defense community that upholds the old values of “deter, detect, defeat.”

Even though, the two write, “this is not a trend expressed only by people from religious Zionism,” such people are pioneers who are trying to “change the diskette” that has been written in recent decades. Thus, declare the researchers, the processes afoot in the IDF are ones of conservatism rather than religionization, since “the religious Zionist perception of the IDF is no different from that of the founding fathers who laid the basis for the original ethos, so that what they are recommending is that the army simply return to itself.”

Tamir Libel offers another explanation, equally fascinating, for the phenomenon of religionization. In his view, the process is part of the struggle between two schools of thought in the army: One has tried to make the IDF into a professional army like most of its peer armies in the West, while the other has tried to preserve and strengthen the model of “the people’s army.”

According to Libel, the supporters of the latter have won, “but the ethos of the people’s army has undergone a change and in the process of inventing a tradition has altered its structure ... The meaning of ‘people’ in that phrase has become explicitly ‘the Jewish people,’ and [it also means] adopting a nationalist-ethnic doctrine strongly influenced by the national-religious ideology, which excludes populations or groups with alternative Jewish identities.”

The person who spearheaded the revival of the role of the IDF in “building the nation” at the expense of advancing the process of its professionalization was former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon. According to Libel, Ya’alon, who is today the defense minister, saw the conflict with the Palestinians as a continuation of the War of Independence, and therefore believed there was a need for enlisting the public’s nationalist sympathies.

In his view, the professionalization process the army underwent in the decade prior to his appointment as chief of staff weakened it, because it eliminated activities that could have included and benefited larger swaths of society.

Ya’alon thus made it his aim to strengthen the traditional functions of the IDF as the people’s army, and in so doing to help rehabilitate its status among the public. He opposed the professional approach whereby military knowhow was entrusted to experts, and tried to return this expertise to the commanders in the field.

In his view, serving in the army is not a matter of professionalism per se. Rather, it demands knowledge that is acquired by doing, and therefore is dependent on “craftsmen” and not experts. His two-pronged approach was manifested in programs like “Destiny and Uniqueness,” which aimed at giving every soldier the tools to deal with the vast variety of tasks and challenges facing the IDF, while also strengthening his or her Jewish identity.

In this context, Elazar Stern, now a Knesset member from the Hatnuah party but at the time commander of the IDF Officers Training School, declared: “A Jewish officer who does not want to say ‘I am proud to be a Jew,’ and who does not know how to explain the reason for his pride to those under his command for at least 20 minutes, will not win a war.” Stern’s successor at the officers school, Gal Hirsch, instituted an examination on the history of the Jewish people; those who failed it were bumped from the course.

According to Libel, “Hirsch’s approach, which focuses on the cadet’s obligation to his people ‏(as opposed to the state or to the political community, as is common in a professional army‏) became palpable when the small synagogue at Training Base 1 [home of the officers school] was replaced by a large and magnificent one ... Chief of Staff Dan Halutz applied himself to this mission, and flew to the United States to raise money for realization of the plan. Thus, in effect, the whole senior command level of the IDF - and not just the officers within it who wore skullcaps - became part of the initial stages of religionization of the army.”

Professional vs. people’s army

The IDF’s failings in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, provoked much debate in the army, with the senior command level adopting the professional approach anew. Libel explains that we are approaching a tipping point between those who believe that the “people’s army” model answers the country’s security needs, and those who believe that changes in the nature of the security threat necessitate adoption of a professional-army approach; and between those who aspire to deepen the ethos of the “army of the Jewish people,” waging divinely ordained war against members of different religions and nations, and those who aspire to endow the IDF with greater professional knowledge and skills.

As opposed to those who see the process of religionization as a mountain - i.e., a real and serious threat - political scientist Asher Cohen believes it is only a molehill. He writes that the apocalyptic scenarios related to the army derive from ignorance, prejudice and excessive scare tactics. According to him, many of those who are considered to be motivated by extreme messianism are not so messianic after all.

“Theirs is a ritual and symbolic messianism that lacks a practical political dimension,” he writes, and most of these figures “adhere to an unconditional doctrine with respect to the sanctity of the state.” The generalized and stereotypical discourse on this subject continues “as though the unconditional sanctification of the state characterizing most of the adherents of religious Zionism has not been proven.”

For his part, journalist and researcher Yoaz Hendel, too, sees the army’s so-called religionization process as boiling down to “perhaps a small and interesting hill” in the shadow of a mountain. According to him, the process derives from “the phenomenon of the distaste for issues concerning army and war in secular Western society, and ends in the vacuum left behind by elite groups from Israel’s past.”

A number of other articles in the collection are devoted to the ostensible competition that has developed between the skullcap beneath the beret and the exposed hair of women - symbolizing two minority groups in the army whose presence there is combined with presentation of a kind of challenge to the secular and masculine hegemony the army has historically had.

Military scholars Yagil Levy and Zeev Lerer point out that as religionization is growing stronger, the exclusion of women in the army is becoming more palpable, thanks to religious elements in the IDF, who invoke “universal arguments that justify excluding women - all of them, not just religious women - on the grounds that they weaken the fighting ability and the solidarity of the military organization.”

Approaching this issue from a different direction, Yifat Sela points to a gradual and steady increase in the number of religious girls who are enlisting. She assesses that the religionization is making service in the IDF simpler for the girls who are grappling with matters of religious faith. Researcher Ranit Budaie-Hyman reveals a study that shows that about one-fourth of the female graduates of the state religious education system are enlisting in the IDF nowadays, when they could with relative ease be signing up for civilian service. Thus, she contends, the religionization is excluding women with one hand, but with the other is in fact bringing them closer.

In the book’s final article, Reuven Gal tries to draw some conclusions. His main one is this: The religionization the army is experiencing “does not at this stage constitute a real danger to the historical, national ethos of the IDF, but it is not free of political influences that are getting stronger, some of which are very far from national consensus.”

I assume Gal was trying to reassure the reader, but I found no consolation in this. On the contrary: The words “at this stage” have not stopped echoing in my mind and shaking my transparent skullcap.

Yuval Elbashan’s most recent novel, “The Masada Case,” was published by Yedioth Ahronoth Books.

IDF reservists praying in Lebanon.Credit: Ancho Gosh

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