There is no religious coercion in the Israeli army, a senior military official told a Knesset committee on Monday, several months after the commander of the storied Givati Brigade, an Orthodox Jew, declared “holy war” on the Palestinians in an official army dispatch to his troops at the start of the summer’s war with Hamas.
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Israel Defense Forces officials “have not identified significant incidents of increased religiosity or exclusion” recently, Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, head of the army’s personnel directorate, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday during a discussion on whether the army is rife with too much Judaism.
“The army has no obligatory religious ceremonies,” said Agmon.
“Except for kiddush on Friday night, there are no [religious] activities that we require soldiers, in a coercive manner, to participate in,” he said, referring to the traditional Shabbat blessing over wine. “If such activities take place, the soldier may choose whether he wishes to participate or not, as with the battalion of the Golani Brigade that went on a trip to the Western Wall. They took a walking tour there and sang ‘Hatikva,’ and then those who chose to recite the Hagomel blessing [after emerging from danger] did so. As far as we are concerned, it is not an activity that takes place in a coercive manner.”
Agmon also spoke about the IDF dispatch during Operation Protective Edge, when IDF Col. Ofer Winter told his troops they were going to war “to wipe out an enemy” who “curses and defames God.” The letter said the troops’ mission was to “wipe out the enemy and lift the threat from the people of Israel.”
“I raise my eyes to the sky and call out with you, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. The Lord God of Israel, make our way successful,” Winter said in the letter, in a reference to the Shema prayer. “We’re going to war for your people Israel against an enemy that defames you.”
Agmon said commanders with different backgrounds could be expected to express their thoughts differently from one another.
“In the order that is issued the day before going into battle, it is customary for the commanding officer to write to his troops, and each commander uses his conceptual world and beliefs. Each one grew up in a different environment and uses his own conceptual world,” Agmon said. “As the Givati Brigade’s commanding officer, and as a person who received an excellent education in the religious studies academy in Eli, Ofer Winter expressed his own views and traditions in the letter. I assume that a different commanding officer might have used the poetry of Rachel [Bluwstein], and still another might have quoted from the writings of [Zionist leader] Berl Katznelson.”
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) objected, saying Winter’s letter “quoted no poem or biblical verse.”
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) said budget cuts have meant that the army is no longer responsible for all the religious content to which soldiers are exposed.
“It’s a problem that the army has reduced the Education Corps, due to budgetary hardship... Organizations from outside the army, with agendas, have gotten involved, and my problem is that no boundaries are being set. All the educational training sessions my son had in the Paratroopers Brigade were provided by private religious groups.”