For Religious Zionists, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is Holy War, Scholar Says

The movement is undermining the authority of the state and the military to ensure that Israel doesn't disengage from the West Bank, says author and professor Yagil Levy.

Ayelett Shani
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An Israeli soldier praying during Operation Protective Edge
An Israeli soldier praying during Operation Protective EdgeCredit: Moti Milrod
Ayelett Shani

Who: Prof. Yagil Levy, 58, teaches military, social and political affairs at the Open University; lives in Herzliya. Wants to promote: His new (Hebrew) book, “The Divine Commander: The Theocratization of the Israeli Military.” Where: a Tel Aviv café. When: Monday, 11 A.M.

There is nothing new about the fact that the presence of the religious public in the Israel Defense Forces is increasingly expanding. But you claim that under the radar, a process of theocratization is underway. In other words, rabbis are meddling in what is happening in the army and dictating policy.

Far from the eyes of the public, the army conducts negotiations with rabbis on a wide spectrum of issues – from integration of women in the IDF to the degree of participation by soldiers in the evacuation of unlawful settlement outposts.

That is what happened during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in 2005. When the deployment of forces in the area was determined, it was decided to keep the religious soldiers far from the “first circle” of troops engaged in the evacuation.

True. And that can be seen clearly in testimony given by then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and then-head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Elazar Stern. They simply sat down and talked with the rabbis and made arrangements that would take into account the feelings of the religious soldiers. A similar thing happened when military force was needed to evacuate shops in Hebron [a reference to the so-called Beit Hameriva, from which settlers were removed – temporarily, as it turned out – in 2008].

Author and professor Yagil Levy.Credit: Gali Eitan

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with taking into account the feelings of religious Jews?

The problem is one of authority, not feelings. When the political leadership decided that gay soldiers could serve in the IDF without restrictions, it established facts on the ground and did not conduct any covert negotiations. In the religious sphere, there is an extremely broad gray zone. Rabbis, some of whom head mekhinot [pre-army preparation programs] and hesder yeshivas [combining religious studies and military service], conduct negotiations with the IDF’s top brass and local commanders, attempting to force their will and worldview on them. One senior army commander told me that if he does not allow his soldiers – who belong to the Chabad sect – to bathe in the mikveh [ritual bath] each day – their rabbis telephone him. There is an air force squadron in which the female pilots are forbidden to fly together with religious male pilots.

In your new book, you cite an example of a training exercise that was postponed due to concern over violation of the Sabbath.

Yes, and I quote from openly available sources. In other words, these are things happening out in the open, without anyone being embarrassed about them. Religious soldiers consult their rabbis – they do not see themselves as subordinate to their commanders or even to the army chaplaincy. I recently received a phone call from a mother who told me that her daughter, who serves on a training base, was asked to sleep fully clothed in the girls’ dormitory, for reasons of modesty. These things stem from the fact that rabbis are telephoning commanders and appearing in person on IDF bases. This is the intervention of an external source of authority that draws its legitimacy not from the laws of the state, but from religious texts. This is not religious influence; it is infiltration by halakhic [religious-law] authorities into the army. This is theocratization.

You are saying that this is not coincidental, that there is an agenda here. It’s all part of the preparations being made in advance of the declaration of an evacuation from the West Bank. Religious Zionism is preparing the groundwork to take over the army and prevent such an evacuation.

This is an expressly strategic move. Many figures in religious Zionism have expressed remorse for the weakness that sector exhibited during the pullout from Gaza, when in spite of the significant religious presence in the army, they failed to thwart the evacuation.

That is a serious accusation. Can you prove that is the trend?

Rabbi Eli Sadan, the leader of the religious mekhinot, expressly said as much: “We must not disengage from the state; rather, we should make our way into the establishments – into the army, the Shin Bet security service, the judicial system – in order to shape the ideal state.” He preaches about that goal, and overtly: We will go into the army, we will generate change in it, we will wield influence."

Still, that’s only one voice.

Sadan established the “mother of the mekhinot” – the one at [the settlement of] Eli, many of whose alumni served and continue to serve in high-ranking posts in the IDF. He is the unchallenged leader of the mekhina enterprise. He is an articulate spokesman for religious Zionism and a prime player in its leaders’ dialogue with the army’s leadership. Sadan presents himself as an official state figure: He talks about the need for democracy, but then decries the secular authority of the state’s institutions.

This is evidence of the state of mind of religious Zionism. And it’s important to note this, because I am often told that I am focusing on the extreme margins of religious Zionism. It simply isn’t true. This is the mainstream.

So is the plan to gain control, or to wield influence?

Sadan is very sensitive to any talk about a takeover of the army by religious Zionism, and favors camouflaging these trends. He argued that there must not be a religious chief of staff, so that no one should think that a religious takeover is happening. What is the boundary between influence that is becoming progressively more noticeable, and taking control? It’s very blurry.

During the disengagement period, a debate took place within the religious Zionist movement on whether to refuse orders to evacuate or not. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan, who heads one of the more important hesder programs, told me, “If we refuse orders, then we will be marked, and as a result of that our people will be denied promotions and influence in the future.” In other words, the thinking is directed toward the future. Moreover, leaders of religious Zionism say openly that they are interested in an army in which they will be able to serve without worrying about kashrut, Sabbath observance and modesty, and are working in that direction.

You have argued that the whole process starts early – in the education pupils receive at the mekhinot and the hesder yeshivas, which exist thanks to state support. What do they teach there?

At face value, the content is [politically] neutral – halakha, preparation of the draftee for the army. But in actuality, there are many available and open texts by means of which the heads of the hesder yeshivas and the mekhinot deliver political exhortations. Sadan comes out against the Oslo Accords and the government’s [territorial] concessions; the outgoing rabbi of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Eliyahu Rahamim Zini, says one is obligated to ascend to the Temple Mount; the head of the Nokdim mekhina, Rabbi Itamar Cohen, says there is no such thing as a Palestinian who is entitled to rights – this is education that undermines the state and its authority. It is political education aimed at pupils who are soldiers on leave, in the case of the hesder yeshivas, or whose service has been deferred by the state, in the case of the mechinot.

What is the objective of this education?

There is a clear trend here. In the view of these people, Israel is waging a war that fulfills a mitzvah involving the settlement of the land. This is a religious commandment, and we religious Jews have a role in leading the army to fulfill it. That is how we educate our soldiers – and not without knowledge or awareness of the fact that this sort of education opposes the political authority of the state, because we believe the authority to relinquish territory held by the state is not within the government’s purview.

Samson and ethnic cleansing

I watched, on the Internet, a speech given by Sadan. In it, he compares Operation Protective Edge in 2014 to Samson’s war against the Philistines, in the aftermath of which “the Philistines were lost.”

This is a very clear statement about the war. A religious war that would possibly have to end with one of the sides no longer existing.

Is he referring to ethnic cleansing?

Yes, ethnic cleansing. And that is something he was saying at the height of Protective Edge.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified that the objective of the operation was restoring quiet to the communities of the south. According to Sadan, what was the objective?

Neither Sadan nor his highest-ranking alumnus in the IDF, Brigadier General Ofer Winter, saw the war in Gaza as an operation to restore quiet in the sector. For them, it was a war against those who have blasphemed God.

Now you are quoting from the “commander’s battle orders,” a document distributed to soldiers by Winter, commander of the Givati Brigade during Protective Edge. In it, he appealed to God with a prayer to protect the forces fighting on behalf of the Jewish people and against an enemy that has blasphemed the name of God.

Yes. That is the order that religious Zionism defended – it was not a “slip of the pen.” There is an idea here of a war that is commanded by the Torah, a war that people embarked upon to defend the reputation of God. A religious war. This is not a war it would be okay to end by reaching some sort of pragmatic compromise.

It’s a war without end.

A war that cannot have an end, unless the non-Jews disappear.

And the objective is to inherit the entire Land of Israel?

Yes. That is the ultimate aim. Immense pressure was exerted to reach a decisive military result, one that the political leadership did not intend to reach at all. Not for naught did Winter say in interviews during the operation that, “If they would only let us take our foot off the brakes, we could reach the sea.” He was the only military commander in Protective Edge who complained about limitations imposed by the political echelon during the fighting. These limitations were very clear – the political leadership did not want to see the complete defeat of Hamas.

Moreover, in a war waged by biblical commandment, in the dilemma between preserving the safety of civilians on the side of the enemy and the lives of the soldiers who are fighting ...

.... there is no dilemma whatsoever.

There’s no dilemma. In a “war of mitzvah,” the safety of the soldiers is a supreme value. On the eve of embarking on Operation Cast Lead [in 2009-2010], pamphlets bearing Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s signature said, “The enemy must be shown no compassion.” During Cast Lead, [then-IDF Chief] Rabbi Avichai Rontzki stood before IDF soldiers and presented the enemy as Amalek. [the tribe that attacked the Children of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt; the Torah decrees that Amalek should be annihilated – ed.].

Rabbi Yechezkel Jacobson, a rabbi at the Shaalavim hesder yeshiva, declared that he had instructed his pupils prior to heading into Gaza that in any situation in which there was a risk to their life as opposed to that of those called “innocents” – it is obvious which should be preferred, and he said he knows this is how they would act. This license is expressed in a particularly aggressive policy regarding the use of live fire during war.

You are linking the live-fire policy to the concept of a Torah-mandated war. That is an incendiary charge.

I stand behind it. The civil laws of war and international law, as well as the problematic code of ethics of the IDF – all these are engaged with the dilemma of harming civilians as opposed to harming soldiers. You can enter a village and “cleanse” house after house at the cost of enhanced risk to your soldiers, and you can also act as did Winter, who was proud that he was protecting his soldiers’ lives because the IDF forces were firing shells or anti-tank missiles at every building before entering it. The state of mind according to which there are no ethical dilemmas, because this is a Torah-mandated war and the civilians are the enemy, grants justification to actions that in other circumstances would not have taken place. The Military Police are still investigating the battalion commander who ordered the shelling of a clinic [in Gaza during Protective Edge] as a means of commemorating an officer who’d been killed. There is an absolutely different array of values at play here.

‘Miraculous acts’

A good illustration of the issue of a war that is sanctioned by the Torah is seen in testimony you cite in your book – of a battalion rabbi who was in the field during Cast Lead. He talks about how, when the Sabbath ended, the deputy battalion commander read out the prayer recited upon heading into battle, with hundreds of soldiers shouting “Please God, save us” and the rabbi blowing a shofar. It sounds like a description of war from the Book of Samuel.

Correct. There are also descriptions of Rontzki, who was asked by the soldiers to touch them before they headed into battle, to rub the camouflage paint on their faces. There is an interesting phenomenon at work here – the anxieties of the soldiers on the eve of battle are perceived in a negative light in the army, and the response to them comes from the side of the religious mechanism.

Instead of giving soldiers emotional support, there is a response based on religious faith.

Engagement with death and fear is a big enemy of the military ethos. The rabbis are essentially leveraging and exploiting this fear in order to enhance their influence by way of the individual conversations and the public prayers they lead. For example, consider the involvement during Protective Edge with supposedly miraculous acts that protected the soldiers. They use religious faith to “inoculate” soldiers against this fear.

Alon, Eisenkot and Numa at the change of command ceremony, March 25, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

We hear that Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot is trying to clip the wings of the military rabbinate, and to rein in its “Jewish awareness” unit.

Even if such a decision is reached, the challenge is to execute it in the face of political and internal pressures. If Eizenkot does in fact attempt to hurt the military rabbinate, he will quickly discover how exposed he is to the influence wielded by the heads of the hesder yeshivas.

Do you think he is unaware of that?

I think he is not aware of it. I think that part of the picture I am presenting is a picture whose full significance is not grasped by many figures in the IDF.

Is this desire of religious Zionism to influence from within also expressed in other arenas? For example, in the actions of [Habayit Hayeudi leader] Naftali Bennett during Protective Edge.

Keeping the army independent of political controversy and subjecting it to a single authority are fundamental principles of democracy. Bennett’s contrarian nature is legitimate, but it does not end with the functioning of the cabinet or the Knesset: He also tries to wield influence within the army. During Protective Edge, Bennett paid visits to IDF units and received informal knowledge about the army’s deployment and how it was dealing with the underground tunnels [leading into Israeli communities on the Gaza border]. He exploited this knowledge to challenge the defense minister and the prime minister while the war was in progress, and spread the news that the IDF was set to engage in a battle over the tunnels – a move that was perhaps not even being planned by the army.

Through Bennett’s actions, he significantly blurred the boundaries between the political establishment and the military establishment. He relied upon, and leveraged, the institutional infrastructure of the hesder yeshivas and the mekhinot, with their abiding religious solidarity, the influence held by the rabbinical figures over the religious soldiers, and the connections between these rabbis and Habayit Hayehudi.

This was a strategic move, as well.

Yes. He exploits it in order to say: My influence is not merely that of coalition politics. I have influence over what is actually done within the army and I will exploit and leverage it so as to gain advantage in political bargaining.

Religious Zionism presents the withdrawal from Gaza as a test of loyalty that was successfully met. They charge that in spite of the complexity of the matter, in the end there were only about 60 soldiers put on trial for refusing orders.

The claim by religious Zionism that the disengagement was an episode during which it faced a test of loyalty is deceptive. The army carried on dialogue with heads of the mekhinot and the hesder yeshivas, and ultimately “showed sensitivity” – in the words of then-Chief of Staff Halutz. In those circles that were close to clashing with the evacuees, no units that had a large religious presence were deployed, and soldiers who asked to be relieved of all sorts of problematic arrangements were relieved of their burden. The army did not compel religious soldiers to take part in a mission that was at odds with their conscience or their religious convictions. If it had done so, then it is possible that we could relate to the disengagement as a litmus test of loyalty.

If that is so, the Gaza pullout cannot serve as an test case for future evacuations, if there are any.

Absolutely not. Note what happens in the isolated cases in which evacuation is called for. When Ehud Barak as minister of defense wanted to evacuate a disputed building in Hebron [in 2012], he used Border Police forces. Similarly, in the Dreinoff compound incident [earlier this year, when residential buildings constructed on Palestinian-owned land in Beit El were demolished], they used Israel Police and Border Police forces – not the IDF. The army lacks any real capacity to deal with this sort of scenario.

And what will happen in the event of the improbable scenario that tomorrow there is a need to evacuate the West Bank?

The army’s concern regarding a situation in which major evacuation operations might drag it down into a massive conflict causes it to send messages to the political leadership to the effect that it is not interested in dealing with this, and that it is a matter for the police. The spread of the unlawful settlement outposts would not have been made possible from the outset without the army. Meaning that no such dilemma really exists.

Several of the IDF’s organizational consultants wrote in an article in the defense establishment’s journal Maarachot that as religious Zionism continues to be more present in the army’s units, the need of soldiers to carry out orders as a show of solidarity with the general public grows weaker. Given the fact that evacuation of the West Bank would be much more difficult, because many more settlements and soldiers would be involved, and the fact that the ideological nucleus is becoming much firmer – such an evacuation would be tenable only under extremely rare circumstances.

Essentially, you are saying that it wouldn’t happen.

When he left the army, Rontzki said, “To think that it is possible to impose on the army the mission of evacuating the settlements is an idle thought, because everyone has a relative who lives there.” Therefore, the litmus test of loyalty offered up by the religious Zionism movement is little more than a bluff.

What would you say to someone who contends that you are simply motivated by prejudice, by hatred of the ultra-Orthodox, and in promoting stereotypes?

As someone whose grandfather was the chief rabbi of Turin and whose cousin is the chief rabbi of Florence, any such statement is meaningless.

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