A Wise Move

A look at some individual and institutionalized efforts to return secular Zionist values to the IDF field command

When Eran Baruch, who grew up on Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh, was a high-school student in the early 1980s, people were already saying "the kibbutzim have lost their mission" as purveyors of Zionism and guiding lights in Israeli society.

The reaction of Baruch and some of his friends, along with educator Lt. Col (res. ) Hoshea Friedman Ben-Shalom, was to set up Project Genesis (Reisheet ). Within it, young kibbutz members and residents of Israel's outlying areas created a pre-induction group that - unlike other such self-selected groups - did not enlist in an elite Israel Defense Forces unit or opt to go together into the Nahal Brigade. Instead, they decided to bolster the Golani Brigade, which at the time had a problematic image, and enlisted in it together.

baruch - Daniel Tchetchik - January 7 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

Before his induction, Baruch and his peers did a year of voluntary communal service, through Project Genesis, in a neighborhood of Yavneh. Their mentors, one of whom was author Amos Oz, told the group that true Zionist self-realization was attainable not only through agricultural work or by joining rural settlements on the country's borders.

"The members of the group were persuaded that what would save the kibbutz movement was, in fact, creation of kibbutzim in urban neighborhoods and in development towns," recalls Baruch, who served as a company commander in Golani and is today 44 years old. "Unfortunately, the idea never caught on. The kibbutz movement was simply unable to make the project get off the ground."

Undaunted, Baruch continued to look for ways to fulfill what he saw as a "national mission," together with educators who grew up in the movement, and personally, as an emissary of the Jewish Agency; he also played an active role in the rescue of Sarajevo's Jewish community during the war in Bosnia.

Fifteen years ago, in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Baruch helped to found the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, which is connected to the kibbutz movement and aims, he says - paraphrasing the words of poet Haim Nahman Bialik - to be the "source of the nation's soul" ("BINA" is also an acronym for that phrase in Hebrew, as well as meaning wisdom, literally ) and to bring the secular community closer to Jewish and Zionist sources.

"We realized," says Baruch, today BINA's executive director, "that the kibbutz movement must set up an alternative [to the religious interpretation of Judaism]. If we do not focus on Judaism, others - religious or ultra-Orthodox Jews - would."

It was decided that BINA would be located in the underprivileged Shapira quarter in southern Tel Aviv, and five years ago, it established what it calls a secular yeshiva there - that is, a one-year program for high-school graduates prior to their induction into the IDF. BINA's secular yeshiva sought to emulate the success of religious and secular pre-military academies, which have in recent years trained thousands of highly motivated soldiers and hundreds of officers who are changing the face of the army.

"I sat here," recalls Baruch, "with members of our academy's second graduating class. I saw before me future platoon and company commanders. I felt I must see to it that these students would not be swallowed up by the gigantic army; that they would preserve what they had learned here - the values and the ability to ask questions; that they would retain the democratic outlook that originally helped build the IDF and which turned it into a victorious army, with officers who ... can carry out a mission."

Thus the BINA academy arranged to send the group to serve in the same IDF unit, as is sometimes the case with students at hesder yeshivas (which combine religious study and military service ): the Armored Corps' 7th Brigade. Now it is creating a parallel course in which female graduates of its pre-military academy will serve together in the Education Corps.

The move to return secular Zionist values to the army's field command is not just academic in nature: Six months ago, for the first time, BINA hosted cadets from the IDF's infantry officers course for a "secular Sabbath" in Tel Aviv. The impetus for this came from the outgoing and incoming commanders of the officers school - Col. Yehuda Fuchs and Col. Eran Niv, respectively - who decided that the future officers, especially those from Orthodox backgrounds, were not sufficiently familiar with the society from which their soldiers would emerge. The result: This year, all cadets in the IDF Officers School will attend 10 Sabbath programs at BINA.

'Opposite direction'

During a series of programs entitled "The Army in a Democracy" at BINA's pre-military academy, a discussion entitled "The Limits of Obedience" was held a few weeks ago, in cooperation with the IDF's Command and Staff College. One of the college's students - a deputy battalion commander, a major in the Paratroops Brigade - talked about his experience in dealing with a religious officer who refused to obey an order during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Another graduate, a deputy commander of an air force squadron, spoke about participating in an attack on the home of a senior member of Hamas, in which civilians were killed.

To those who know how difficult it is to broach such sensitive issues in the IDF, such a discussion might be surprising. However, stresses Baruch, "the army has a not-inconsiderable number of officers who understand the need to create a cadre of commanders who have an independent way of thinking, and to encourage an atmosphere in which one can ask questions and deliberate issues."

Baruch regrets the fact that the IDF's senior echelons don't do more to educate secular recruits that becoming a commander is a mission that is congruent with liberal values. Furthermore, together with like-minded colleagues, he is lobbying against the recent decision by the IDF's personnel directorate to freeze the quotas that enable high-school graduates to defer their compulsory service in order to attend pre-military academies or do a year of volunteer work.

"The defense establishment made a wise move when it furthered programs that encourage religious youth to aspire to positions of influence and leadership in the IDF," notes Baruch. "However, the time has come for a move in the opposite direction. The deep respect religious people have for rabbis leads them to adopt the position that it is wrong to have doubts - but everyone makes mistakes. An army that does not ask questions is an immoral army. If we do not succeed at changing this, we will be an army that always seeks to justify its actions, and an army that is self-righteous and immoral."