Israel Needs to Keep Religion Out of the Army

It's time for IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to bring back the original version of the Yizkor memorial prayer, featuring the words, 'the nation of Israel,' to IDF ceremonies, after it was changed during the Six Day War.

The original version of the Yizkor memorial prayer for fallen soldiers and security service personnel was composed by prominent Zionist leader Berl Katznelson. The prayer was first recited in memory of the defenders of Tel Hai, who fought in the 1920 battle that has since become a landmark in Zionist history. The original opening line was: "May the nation of Israel remember its sons and daughters."

But Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, changed one phrase in the Hebrew. In thrall to postwar messianic fervor, he determined that the prayer should say, "May God remember his sons and daughters."

For decades, at the ceremony signaling the end of Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day, radio personality Amikam Gurevitch recited the original version of the memorial prayer. Several people tried to pressure him to read the Goren version, but Gurevitch insisted on using the original, secular, establishment version.

That hasn't been the case at IDF bases, where - at the urging of military rabbis and at the behest of bereaved religious families - the version invoking God is usually recited at Memorial Day ceremonies. At first glance, this change seems to affect just one phrase. However, it is indicative of the major transformation taking place in the army and the entire country, which is turning from a secular country into a theocracy in which the rabbis set the rules.

Journalist Menashe Raz asked IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to bring back the original version, featuring "the nation of Israel," to IDF ceremonies. This is a secular army, after all, and the Yizkor prayer for fallen soldiers is intended for the people of Israel to listen and remember those who sacrificed their lives for the country. Most of the young people who fell in battle did not go to war in the name of God; many of them don't even believe in God. They went to war to defend their homeland, their nation and their families, not because of religious conviction, and they want the nation of Israel - not God - to remember them.

But the chief of staff told Raz that the General Staff directive requires the prayer to begin, "May God remember." That's an evasive answer that deals with formalities, not the substantive core of the matter. Like all General Staff commands, this one, too, can be changed. It would be fitting for Gantz to deal with the substantive issue and restore the prayer to the original, secular, establishment version.