The Holy War Being Waged Within the Israeli Army

Last summer’s war in Gaza was the clearest indication yet of how the IDF has been moving from the secular to the religious, with former chief of staff and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the heart of the change. What are the long-term implications?

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
A rabbi and and IDF soldier in 2012.
A rabbi and and IDF soldier in 2012.Credit: Nir Kafri
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

“It was astonishing. Soldiers from the Military Rabbinate were waiting for us the moment we arrived at the base,” says A., a former moshavnik living in Tel Aviv. “It happened in 2010 on a base in the north, when the team of reservists I serve with was sent to a sector on the Golan Heights. As we were entering the base, the soldiers from the Military Rabbinate were stringing an eruv [a symbolic enclosure around a community allowing those within it to carry items from one place to another on Shabbat] so that the religious soldiers wouldn’t have to break Shabbat. No supply of ammunitions or food got to the base, but the eruv was already up.”

A., 37, serves in an elite infantry unit. Because he is still doing reserve duty, he asked that his identity not be revealed. “I think that was the first time I realized our army had changed profoundly,” he says, soberly.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But the eruv was just the beginning. Later that same week, on Saturday afternoon, the soldiers on the base went on sudden alert because of a suspected infiltration. “When something like that happens, there are no questions about the way we’re supposed to act,” says A. But in the midst of the commotion, one religious reservist refused to ride in the jeep. He argued, saying he didn’t want to desecrate Shabbat. Even while the argument was going on, with voices raised, someone else quickly took his place. That was unusual. That was the moment I realized we weren’t speaking the same language anymore.”

That was not the last incident to challenge the delicate fabric of relations between the religious and secular soldiers on that base in the north. “There were at least two more cases that had to do with religious issues,” A. recalls. “One had to do with women infantry instructors who had come to conduct supplementary training. I remember one of the religious soldiers being displeased that they had arrived. He moved away and tried not to listen to them. Later on, when we started organizing sleeping arrangements, he just stood up and said, ‘They’re not sleeping on the base.’ Even though there were enough rooms for everybody, he insisted. An argument started, and in the end the women soldiers were transferred to another base in the north.”

Soldiers in the regular army and in the reserves, high-ranking defense establishment officials, and researchers in the academic world can tell dozens of similar stories. According to their accounts, the army’s Zionist character is embroiled in a day-to-day struggle against the increasing power of religious views and values that are being imposed on the soldiers in various ways.

Last summer’s Operation Protective Edge provided another opportunity to see how the army has changed its appearance over the past two decades. During the fighting in Gaza, the full extent of fundamental religious rules such as public prayer before engaging in battle, the exclusion of women, and the increased power of the Military Rabbinate were evident. The changes that have taken place within the army also include the writing and issuing of orders directly connected to religious affairs, and the effort by army rabbis and the high command, working in concert, to instill religious views in the army’s fighting spirit and its daily life.

Fighting the Philistines

For G., a soldier in the regular army who serves as an instructor on a base in central Israel, the essence of religious experience in the army centers around the Western Wall. “I’ve been to the Western Wall three times over a year and three months of service,” he says. “The second time I went to the Western Wall was on Jerusalem Day. The whole section was sent there. Lectures by religious reservists came with the walking tour this time, too, but we were also given an assignment. To become familiar with the Old City, we got a map and had to go to several places, including an ancient synagogue, mark down that we had been there and read about them.”

Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ofer Winter (C), IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (R) and GOC Southern Command Sami Turgeman (L) confer during Operation Protective Edge, August 2, 2014.Credit: Yehuda Gross / IDF Spokesperson

As a rule, Rosh Hashanah in the army is a time for events of a religious stripe. For example, a few days before the holiday, reservists from the Paratroops Brigades telephoned dozens of army widows to tell them that the brigade commander wanted to give them a holiday gift. On the eve of the holiday, soldiers from the unit visited the widows’ homes to give them the promised gift – a book containing the text of the Kiddush ceremony for Shabbat and all the Jewish festivals, the liturgical songs that are sung at the three Shabbat meals, the grace after meals, and the seven blessings recited at wedding ceremonies.

In addition, the Taharat Habayit organization, a nonprofit group formed in 2005 that renovates existing mikva’ot (ritual baths) and constructs new ones, built a mikveh on the Ovda Air Force Base in the south. According to its website, its aim is “to transform the mikva’ot scene in Israel” and “the revolution is well underway.”

The letter of command issued by Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter during Operation Protective Edge lays bare another dimension of this phenomenon. “I lift my eyes heavenward and call out with you: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” Col. Winter wrote to the men under his command on July 9. “O Lord, God of Israel, make our path successful as we are about to fight for the sake of your people Israel against an enemy who blasphemes your name.”

“This text expresses a clear agenda,” says Prof. Yagil Levy, who studies the triangular relationship between the army, society and politics. “Winter functioned according to the repertoire expected of a religious officer who has graduated from a pre-army academy. The pre-army academies were not established only to encourage young religious men to enter combat service and become stronger in their religious observance before enlisting. The main purpose of the pre-army academies was to become a means of influencing the army. That’s why Winter did not keep his beliefs to himself. Instead, he functioned as a commanding officer with an educational mission from the yeshiva, who had gone into the army to influence it. Winter’s statements show clearly that the war in Gaza is a holy war that must be waged for the sake of God’s renown. As he sees it, an attack on Israel is an attack on the name of God. In Winter’s war, there are different rules. It is a holy war.”

What are the implications of a war waged in a religious atmosphere, of the kind that Winter offers us?

“This kind of war makes it easier to strike at innocent civilians among the enemy. This kind of war strives for unequivocal victory, because God’s renown is at stake. A war waged in a religious spirit offers full justification for dying a martyr’s death, which increases our troops’ risk threshold. In the terminology of this kind of war, the Palestinians are Philistines, and afterward there are no Philistines in the land. This kind of war could even justify ethnic cleansing.”

It’s obvious that an agenda like Winter’s poses a challenge to the secular agenda in Israel. But do you think it also poses a challenge to the political order in Israel?

“Definitely. I’m less bothered by the Givati Brigade commander’s letter. What disturbs me more is the army’s silence about it.”

It was reported that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon expressed reservations about Winter’s letter.

“He expressed reservations in a closed meeting with heads of pre-army academies, but we never heard that the commander was called to order. The opposite is true: After the incident, the army increased his [Winter’s] visibility and allowed him to be interviewed in the press and talk once again about God, Torah study, prayer, miracles, and stories of divine grace that took place during the battles in Gaza.”

Religious people, the army wants you

Many struggles over religion have been taking place in the army in recent years. One example is IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz’s agreement in June 2011 to change the opening phrase of the Yizkor memorial prayer, which is recited at military memorial ceremonies, from “May the people of Israel remember” to the wording that religious elements demanded: “May God remember his children.” [The order to say “May God remember” actually dates from 1976, but was never enforced until Gantz’s intervention.]

Another incident that made headlines, this time about women singing before a mixed audience, took place at about the same time. Nine religious cadets in an infantry officers’ course – most of them from elite units such as Duvdevan and Egoz – faced dismissal for refusing to listen to the singing of women soldiers at an evening gathering devoted to Operation Cast Lead and “the legacy of battle.” [The soldiers’ behavior was based on a religious prohibition known as “kol isha,” which defines a woman’s singing voice as “nakedness” and forbids men to listen to it.] The affair ended in the dismissal of several of the cadets, while others apologized and remained in their positions.

Yet another case, in late 2011, took place when Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir stepped down from his position as head of the army’s Personnel Directorate. Zamir wrote to the chief of staff, calling upon him to stop the growing religious extremism in the army and recommending the creation of a “stop line” that would emphasize adherence to official Israeli norms. “Zamir based his statements on a study conducted by Brig. Gen. Gila Kalifi-Amir, the chief of staff’s adviser on women’s affairs,” says Yagil Levy. The study found that women were being excluded from key positions in the army because of a strict interpretation of the 2002 “appropriate integration” order, which was supposed to regulate relations between religious and secular soldiers, and between strictly observant male soldiers and female soldiers.

“Kalifi-Amir’s study described a loss of control in the army,” adds Levy. “She claimed that the rules had been set up in a way that ‘imposed religious extremism.’ We ought to remember that in 2004, the army set up a committee to look into the implementation of the integration order because of alleged complaints from the field that it was not being enforced. The army chose Lt. Col. (res.) Yalon Farhi, the rabbi of the pre-army academy in Eli, to head the committee. As a result of his findings, the army set up an administration for appropriate integration headed by Col. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, who later became the army’s chief rabbi (and currently serves as the rabbi of Itamar in the West Bank). The role of the administration for appropriate integration was to find gaps between policy and implementation, but in practice its function was seen as a kind of ‘modesty patrol’ that went among the army bases, finding failure in the modesty of secular women soldiers, or the mixing of male and female soldiers living on the base.”

Zamir is reluctant to be interviewed publicly on the topic. In the letter he wrote to the chief of staff, he also spoke openly about the power struggle being waged between the army’s Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate, an issue that went all the way to the state comptroller, who finally addressed it in 2012. In his letter, Zamir suggested that the appropriate integration order be replaced by a “common service” order, whose purpose would be to protect both women and religious soldiers from discrimination.

“That’s true, but the utter failure to ‘update’ the appropriate integration order came to light once his statements were made public,” notes Levy. “There was such an effort, but the order never became binding because Chief of Staff Benny Gantz never signed it. He is reluctant to do so to this day, because he realizes he’s got a hot potato on his hands. That’s the atmosphere in the army, and it’s no wonder that [former chief of staff Gabi] Ashkenazi and Gantz chose to freeze the implementation of the recommendations in the Segev Committee report from 2007 – which called for a fully egalitarian service model for men and women.”

In 2004, when current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was chief of staff, he drew up a strategic plan, entitled Yi’ud Yihud (Mission and Uniqueness), for building Zionist-Jewish identity among soldiers in the army. The plan was published around the same time that he established the administration for appropriate integration. It seems the plan and the administration are the two engines driving the process of increased religiosity in the army, and the key person at their center is Ya’alon himself.

“The document entitled Yi’ud Yihud puts the Israeli army’s identity into words for the first time in many, many years,” observes Levy. “Ya’alon did that in his own way, and, for the first time in Israel’s history, the army is described as a Jewish army. He felt the Oslo mentality of the end of the conflict [referring to the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993] ... should be put aside, and that Israeli society should be prepared for a struggle in the shadow of an ongoing threat.

“In his view, since the army is still affected by the legacy of Oslo, it is a defeated organization whose weakness came to light with its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000,” adds Levy. “Ya’alon was appointed chief of staff in 2002 and, together with Education Corps chief Elazar Stern, he worked to take exclusive responsibility for education away from the Education Corps. This move, during a time of lowered motivation to enlist, came out of a realization that Israeli soldiers had to be connected to Jewish heritage in order to strengthen the army and raise motivation to enlist among the secular population.”

So army officials realized the army needed religion as a new way to motivate the soldiers?

“That’s true, and it is significant in two other ways,” says Levy. “The first is that the command echelon sees the religious soldier as the ideal soldier. The second is that the Military Rabbinate has the toolbox the army needs to cope with what it sees as a weakening in Israeli society, and the trickling of that weakness into the army. In 2005, the Military Rabbinate changed its organization ordinance to state that one of its tasks was ‘fostering and instilling Jewish awareness and Jewish tradition among IDF soldiers.’ This statement was made official in 2010 by a change in the army’s organizational order.”

In other words, the chief of staff gave the Military Rabbinate, for the first time ever, an official role that linked “Jewish religious topics” with “strengthening the fighting spirit of the army’s troops and commanders.” Where do you think that is headed?

Levy: “Toward theocratization, in the sense that religious powers are interfering with the way the army is run. This casts a heavy shadow over the army’s ability to act, in a way that reflects the citizen community’s collective will.”

A fighting-spirit officer

Late in the morning, a security officer in civilian clothes stands at the gate of the Itamar settlement, near Nablus, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Beside him is an army jeep with four soldiers inside. The soldiers have parked the jeep in the middle of a street called Temple Road. Leading westward from Itamar’s main square is a road dotted with red-roofed homes, including the home of the Fogels, where the parents and three of the children were stabbed and shot to death in a terror attack in March 2011. Farther on begins a steep road leading upward to the Itamar Yeshiva, which has about 200 students.

The yeshiva dean, Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, a resident of Itamar who served as the army’s chief rabbi from 2006 to 2010, waits at the yeshiva entrance. Photographs of the Fogels are on the memorial wall behind him. He walks slowly past them and goes into a room on the side. On the wall is a sign stating that the lecture hall is named for Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, and Maj. Roi Klein, deputy commanding officer of the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion. Moreno and Klein, who were both killed in the Second Lebanon War, were students at the Bnei David pre-army academy in Eli.

Rontzki sits at a table filled with empty coffee cups and a Bible. “I don’t remember that the kibbutznikim filled the army’s ranks with numbers like the religious people. Someone was looking for a phenomenon there,” he says. “What is ‘hadata’ [increased religiosity in the army]? I don’t understand. Nobody was ever anxious about the high number of kibbutzniks in the army. Nobody ever wrote books about them. What are they so afraid of? In my opinion, a process is underway of getting Israeli society scared about the increasing number of religious people in the army. They’re raising fears of a putsch, a revolution.

“We had a classic test case in Gush Katif [the Gazan settlement bloc evacuated in 2005]. Did any of those same soldiers heed the rabbis’ call to disobey orders? No. They obeyed their commanders. The religious soldiers enlist in the army to protect the country. That’s a sacred and important mission. There are no other goals. All the talk about increasing religiosity in the army is almost anti-Semitic. It’s propaganda. What happened was that a vacuum was created in the military settings, and it was filled by members of the religious-Zionist movement who had been raised to be responsible. To be concerned about the country, not the government.”

Beside his position as dean of the yeshiva, Rontzki serves as a member of the Jewish Identity Administration, which Habayit Hayehudi set up about a year ago, to spread Jewish values among the public.

Rontzki, one of Itamar’s founders and a man who makes no effort to hide his work teaching Torah to Israel’s inhabitants, began living a religious lifestyle at the end of the Yom Kippur War. He may be the one who can teach us the most about the process of increased religious observance that is taking place in the army. He says what he thinks. His personal involvement began in 2005, when Ya’alon, then chief of staff, appointed him head of the administration for appropriate integration.

“We set up the administration to create a system of orders that allowed for a proper life for men and women soldiers,” says Rontzki, who was accused of leaking military information to Minister Naftali Bennett during Operation Protective Edge while he was in uniform. “We heard many complaints then that had nothing to do with religious people. Most of the complaints were filed by women. Large numbers of women were enlisting at the time, because of pressure from women’s groups. The problem was that the absorption infrastructure for women soldiers was not ready for them.”

Rontzki says he never saw army rabbis when he was a soldier. “The rabbis were the ones who brought challah and wine, and buried their fellow soldiers. Rabbis never went into battle. They never even went on marches. They never fired a gun in their lives.”

And on your watch, the rabbis did so?

“All of them were former combat soldiers. Wall-to-wall changes were made during my time. Since I wanted the Rabbinate to come from the combat ranks, I replaced most of the rabbis in the Military Rabbinate. This brought the rabbis closer to the soldiers. They began going out on marches with the troops, and by Operation Cast Lead, they were going into Gaza. They went in with their units during Operation Protective Edge, too.”

Why is it important for rabbis to go into Gaza with the troops?

“A rabbi’s job is to assist the commanding officer by strengthening the fighting spirit. The ability to be victorious in battle depends on excellent professional ability and excellent mental ability. From my experience in the Yom Kippur War, we would not have won without fighting spirit. It wasn’t the generals’ wisdom that brought us to victory.”

What are the components of this fighting spirit?

“One significant component is being connected to your people, your land, your history. I’m not talking about faith, even if I know that faith provides a great deal of strength as well. The history of an ancient people provides a great deal of strength. When you arrive for an operation in Samaria, the commanding officer doesn’t have time for such things. Most of the time he’s busy preparing the troops. The rabbi can help him. He can connect the soldiers with the history of the place, the archaeology, the Bible. Soldiers are not mercenaries. Each place is full of Jewish history that goes back thousands of years. Soldiers need to understand that they are continuing something. That’s true of Gaza or the northern border.”

Does it ever occur to you to instill fighting spirit without reference to Judaism?

“Nonsense! We’re Jews. We’re a Jewish army. Soldiers who are connected to the chain of generations – from the Patriarch Abraham, through King David, Yoni Netanyahu, Roi Klein and Hannah Szenes – make stronger troops. They live the fact that their people came back after 2,000 years of exile. They are not confused. They know that this is their country, their homeland. During Operation Protective Edge, dozens of soldiers from the Jewish Consciousness Department signed up for reserve duty. There wasn’t a single soldier from the Education department chief’s office. The Education department didn’t deal with that, and doesn’t deal with it today either.”

Not exactly.

“It deals with democracy, with questions such as what you do in case you’re evacuated. But is that the way to win a war? Can you run with the flag of democracy? It may be important in Israeli society or in school, but not in the army. When you train a soldier, you have to train him for victory. Does the Sunday culture program at Habima Theater help us win?”

Is there any boundary you would draw in the relationship between the army and religion?

“There’s no need to be afraid of anything. It’s a free market. Nobody’s coercing anyone. What do we have to be afraid of? Who we are? I can only guess that some of the old elites are afraid of the changing face of Israeli society. The elites are afraid that the discourse has changed.”

Response from IDF Spokesperson’s Office

“The army has clear procedures concerning material connected with education and Jewish heritage. The army’s commanders work to enable all those serving in the army to perform significant service, while protecting the lifestyles and needs of the various populations. Soldiers who do not wish to take part in activities connected to religion are not required to do so, and may refrain from participating.

“When the chief of staff spoke about the issue in 2011, he stated that the exclusion of women was forbidden. A clear policy dealing with integration was instituted, and incidents that deviate from that policy are handled in an uncompromising manner. Any irregular incident that violates the policy of integration, whether to do with religion or with the integration of women, will be dealt with severely.”

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