The Spirit of the Skullcap

In his new book, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern comes across as an officer incapable of breaking free of the paradigms of the religious Zionism in which he was reared - and which, to his great dismay, no longer exist.

Masa Kumta: Nivutim Begova Ha'eynayim (Navigations ) by Elazar Stern, Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 319 pages, NIS 98

It would have made more sense for Elazar Stern to call this memoir of his life and army career "Kippa March" instead of naming it after the "masa kumta" ("beret march"), the endurance hike with which combat soldiers complete their basic training, because it is the spirit of the skullcap on his head that hovers over these pages. To paraphrase the adage about military officers who view the world through their rifle sights, it could be said that Stern, who headed the army's Personnel Directorate until he retired from the Israel Defense Forces in 2008, views the world through the holes of his knitted kippa. His worldview is flat and one-dimensional, founded on a belief in the superiority of the Orthodox over the secular. His attempts to conceal that sense of superiority come to naught, and every so often this arrogance is manifested directly in the pages of the book.

One good example can be found when Stern, who also served five years as head of the army's Education Corps, talks about his decision to place the religious soldiers from hesder yeshivas in various secular platoons, rather than keeping them together in their own units. Quite a few of the rabbis at these yeshivas, which allow conscripts to alternate periods of religious studies with periods of military service, objected to the initiative, charging that these soldiers would be unable to maintain their religious lifestyle. In explaining his objection to this argument, Stern states that if the number of Orthodox soldiers in each secular platoon was large enough, the issue of maintaining a religious way of life would be resolved. He then adds, "Even matters of clean language and the like would be resolved, given the number of soldiers who could wield a positive influence, thus ensuring that clean language would be spoken in their presence" -- for it is obvious that secular soldiers, unlike Orthodox ones, are wont to curse and use "unclean" language.

Stern, who retired from the army with the rank of major general, is convinced that the IDF will produce better soldiers if it educates them in the spirit of Judaism. "We believe," writes Stern, "that an officer in the IDF who cannot speak with his men for 20 minutes about what a Jew is will not be victorious in battle, and so we devote a great deal of time to this." It would be interesting to see if Druze and Bedouin officers, who are almost certainly unable to "speak for 20 minutes about what a Jew is," are able to win in battle.

As commander of the officer training school and as head of the Personnel Directorate, Stern worked vigorously "to inculcate the values of Judaism" and nurture Jewish identity in all the IDF's units and all its soldiers. He was horrified to discover the high number of non-Jewish immigrants who serve in the army, and was quick to initiate a project called "friendly conversion." Of course, all this is very nice and shows how open Stern is, since he only wants to make things easier for someone who wishes to join the Jewish people. But right after he chronicles this initiative to facilitate conversions, the reason for it emerges: "These soldiers will become better soldiers." In other words, a good soldier is a Jewish soldier. Again, poking out through the pages is an arrogance that borders on racism. Is the converted soldier going to be a better soldier than a Druze soldier?

For further reading:

Israel's future in doubt
A critical look at Israeli militarism
Questions and Answers / Amal Jamal on being an Arab in Israel today

When Stern was appointed commander of the paratrooper basic training base, he added the abbreviation for the traditional phrase "With God's help" to the invitations sent to families on the occasion of their sons' swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall. A reservist officer, a kibbutznik, told him: "In our movement, it's customary to write ?In the name of the brotherhood of nations.' Why not write that at the top of the invitation?"' Stern replied, with utter seriousness, "If I were convinced that the brotherhood of nations helps us as much as the name of God does, maybe I would write that, too."

Not the first to say hello

A central motif running through the entire book is the shattered feeling that Stern experienced when he realized that his fellow religious Zionists viewed him as the enemy, the brutal foe, the criminal who was doing harm to religious Zionist values. Stern has a hard time stomaching this. How was it that he, who had worked to nurture Jewish identity, who went to the trouble of converting immigrant soldiers, who presented the best face of Judaism to the IDF General Staff, had become an outcast among the very people who should have embraced his actions?

The bitter reality hit home when he found himself in a senior IDF post during the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, in 2005. His clear stand against soldiers who defied military orders to participate in the evacuation was viewed by the religious Zionist camp as an act of treachery. "Since the disengagement, and a little bit beforehand," he writes, "I have been greatly saddened by my chance meetings with the religious public .... If I weren't religious, I wouldn't be a target for so many comments, reprimands and rebukes, in the manner of, ?We sent you,' or even, ?You are there to work for us.'"

The more time that passed, the greater was his disappointment with his fellow religious Zionists, so much so that he makes generalizations about the entire "religious public." Once again, the one-dimensional Stern emerges. In the wake of attending a wedding at which a kippa-wearing guest refuses to shake his hand, Stern makes it clear: "Ever since that event, even though my mother always made sure that I would be the first to say hello to everyone, I pretty much always avoid saying hello first to people wearing kippot whom I don't know, instead waiting for them to first extend their hand to me." And elsewhere he says: "For months, and even years [after the Gaza withdrawal], when I would be invited to a wedding with a secular crowd, I went like a regular guy, whereas if it were a wedding with a religious crowd, even that of my relatives or neighbors, I would be compelled to go with bodyguards."

Stern doesn't flinch in his attacks on those rabbis whose behavior, in his opinion, does real harm to members of their flock. "I blame those among the rabbis of religious Zionism who did not know how to lead properly, who exacerbated the rupture and even deceived their followers. The rupture within the religious public after the disengagement ... and primarily the tremendous confusion among the youth and the loss of faith in the religion or in the state, all of this could have been moderated, could have been softened, or even altogether avoided. If only the rabbis had acted differently .... In my view, these rabbis truly abandoned the public that follows them .... These are rabbis who put themselves in the place of the Master of the Universe, partly interpreting him, partly telling him what to do."

In his book, Stern wages all-out war against the rabbis who criticized him and assailed his decisions throughout his military career. In so doing, a positive aspect of his conduct is exposed, as well as a high measure of civic courage. Unlike his colleagues, high-ranking officers who prefer to share their opinions of these rabbis in private, and who thereby relinquish their own honor and the honor of the army, Stern justifiably attacks them by name, pouring out his wrath upon them.

He attacks Rabbi Dov Lior of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, accusing him of racism; he comes out against Rabbi David Dudkevitch of the West Bank settlement Yitzhar -- who spoke in praise of an officer of the Nahal brigade who had told his men that Reform and Conservative Jews are worse than the Nazis, since the Nazis destroyed only six million Jews, whereas the Reform and Conservative movements have caused the destruction of eight million. Yaakov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and president of the hesder yeshiva there, earned Stern's scorn after announcing he had omitted the word "all" from the blessing recited for IDF soldiers, explaining that he does not pray for anyone who took part in evacuating the residents of Gush Katif. Stern writes about Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed and the son of Mordechai Eliyahu, a former chief rabbi of Israel: "I believe that the title ?rabbi' is ill-suited to him."

Stern also has a bone to pick with the council of hesder yeshiva rabbis, because it is they who attacked him relentlessly when he decided that the military part of hesder soldiers' service should be modified. Stern reveals that between 1999 and 2003, the number of hesder yeshiva students increased by over 35 percent. He also underscores the fact that hesder students serve only 16 months in uniform, as opposed to the 36 months that everyone else serves. He is, of course, aware of the discrimination this entails for secular soldiers, but contends that "I am not calling, Heaven forbid, for the [hesder yeshiva] arrangement to be scrapped." The religious will continue to serve about one-third of the duration of service of the secular, because, he writes, we must "concern ourselves with the hesder soldiers, for the sake of the future of the spiritual world in Israeli society." At most, he argues, all that should be changed is that fewer people should be concerning themselves with our spiritual future.

Stern's spiritual world and value system are reflected in a letter he released in 2002 (though not mentioned in the book ), in which he referred to the conduct of IDF soldiers serving in the territories. "Even the most upright person is practically ordered to take on a certain measure of cruelty and anger when going to war," Stern wrote. "It is impossible to be victorious in war with over-sensitivity. A soldier must bear a degree of inflexibility or obstinacy, with which he will succeed in adhering to his legitimate military target."

And though he considers it necessary to show a certain measure of cruelty, Stern is convinced that "We are the most moral army in the world." The reason we are so moral, according to Stern, has to do with the delegations of soldiers who visit the Nazi death camps, a project he initiated. It's "because we were in Poland, and we remember that we were in Poland by dint of the collective memory, the memory of us as a people."

The book is replete with apologetic arguments through which Stern tries to explain and excuse a plethora of scandalous statements he made as a high-ranking officer. One was in a live broadcast on Army Radio, when Razi Barkai asked about the condolence calls he'd been making to the homes of fallen soldiers. "Do you mean to say that you do not go to homes in Tel Aviv?" To which Stern replied, "You said that, not me. But hardly any." In other words, Stern was implying, in the State of Tel Aviv there are no fallen soldiers, for it is well-known that the young people of Tel Aviv shirk army service, or in the best case serve in desk jobs.

"The truth is that I wasn't referring to Tel Aviv at all," he clumsily explains. "I was referring to an entirely different population group ... I was referring to those Haredi people who don't go to the army ... but because the subject of the Tel Aviv bubble was in the headlines at the time, Razi thought or wanted to think about Tel Aviv in that sense."

But Stern doesn't stop there. An explanation is one thing, a worldview quite another. "About a year and a half after I'd already left active service in the IDF, additional data was released in which a list appeared of the 50 leading schools in terms of graduates going into combat service. Tel Aviv wasn't on the list," he notes with unconcealed satisfaction.

Speaking to the officers training school cadets, Stern said that if his daughter were to ask whether she should go out with a boy who was serving in a combat unit or a boy who wasn't, "I assume that you can guess my answer." But of course, he says he was misunderstood yet again. "There is no practical and most certainly no personal statement here, only a message: Anyone who can be in a combat unit should be in a combat unit." Indeed, a proper way of calling for combat service.

Stern is fed up with the media, which he says always get him wrong. He was often surprised "to find how many complex messages were turned into distorted headlines in the next day's newspaper" with no basis in reality.

It was Napoleon who said that every soldier carries a marshal's staff in his kitbag. It seems as if in recent years there's been a process afoot in the IDF in which every general carries a writing implement in his kitbag, with senior officers leaving the army after many years of service feeling an uncontrollable impulse to write books. There's no doubt that some of them are worthy and make a real contribution toward understanding the processes and developments the army has gone through, while others contain valuable insights into the relationships within the General Staff or the connection between the top military brass and the government. Stern's book, however, is not one of them.

A significant portion of his memoir is devoted to stories about Stern's life that are filled with the minutest details, beginning with his childhood and not ending until his retirement from the army. There are two problems here. First, it is unclear whether the stories, some of which are embarrassing or ridiculous, would interest readers who may not be his close friends. Second, most of them read as if they were being recited by a counselor in the Scouts (or in the religious youth group Bnei Akiva, in this instance ) as part of an educational activity.

The book depicts an officer filled with good will who is incapable of, and almost certainly not interested in, breaking free of the paradigms of the religious Zionism in which he grew up -- which to his great dismay has passed from this world, as he gradually discovers. This is the Kippa March of Elazar Stern, the march in which he enlisted as an officer to wage the rearguard action of the good old National Religious Party, which has since been replaced by extremist rabbis and hilltop youth. Stern, it seems, understands that he might really be defeated in this war. "It isn't the personal insult," he writes, referring to religious Jews who threw stones at him on his way to the Western Wall. "It's the dread of what we've become as a society, and particularly of what we are liable to become."

Reuven Pedatzur is a lecturer in the political science department of Tel Aviv University.

Haaretz Books, March 2010,