The Ever-diminishing Dissonance of Being a Religious Soldier in Israel's Secular Army

A new book describes the sea change undergone by the Israeli army, from a time when kippa-wearers were rare to an era in which one-third of officer cadets are Orthodox. What does the revolution bode for the IDF's future?

A graduation ceremony of an officers course at Bahad 1.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Srugim bakaneh” (“The Story of Religious Zionists’ Army Integration”), by Yaniv Magal, Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 392 pages, 78 shekels

Countless questions confront a religiously observant soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. The usual procedure, in all armed forces, is that the officer gives commands, the soldier executes them, and that’s that. But for the religious soldier, things are more complicated. He has one commander in the army, a second commander in his yeshiva and a third – the most important of all – somewhere way up above. What happens when the commanders’ orders contradict one another? Whom to obey? Throughout his military service, the religious soldier is often engaged in a tug-of-war between imperatives, and Yaniv Magal’s book addresses the conflicts this causes articulately and with surprising candor. He provides personal interviews, statistics and information are plentiful, and overall this is a model of courageous research about one of the most significant issues facing present-day Israel.

A representative example is provided here by Rabbi Moshe Hager, head of the mekhina (pre-military academy) in Beit Yatir, a settlement south of Hebron. He tells the story of two brothers who studied in the mekhina and went on to participate in the air force pilots course. “On one occasion the older brother’s unit organized an evening in which they planned to eat grilled pork. His father, who was a rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York, called me, very upset, and asked how it could be that he was asked to pay 200 shekels [$50] to underwrite the evening. I spoke to the son, who said, ‘The facts are right, but Dad mustn’t dare get involved with it.’

“Two years later,” Rabbi Hager continued, “his brother was about to complete the pilots course, and the concluding ceremony was scheduled to be held on the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day. The brother asked the base commander to reschedule the event. The commander explained that it was Air Force Day and that the chief of staff had been invited. Nevertheless, the date was changed. We know that eating pork is the more serious transgression, so why did the two brothers behave differently?” Rabbi Hager’s answer: “There were five religiously observant people in the younger brother’s course, whereas the older brother was the only religious person in his course.”

The message is clear: Religious soldiers are no longer a marginal minority, and their role in the IDF’s decision-making process is becoming increasingly important.

The author portrays the IDF as being hostile to the observant community during the state’s first three decades, describing the humiliation they endured during those years. Testimonies of observant officers in the past that he cites reveal a judgmental, narrow-minded, inconsiderate approach by army authorities at different levels. David Ben-Gurion, who was Israel’s first defense minister and wanted the religious public to be able to do military service, introduced certain Jewish elements into army life. Nonetheless, the majority in the senior officer corps and in the combat units – particularly elite ones – were secular, including a large number from the kibbutz movement.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Naveh, a former deputy chief of staff, recalls that when soldiers would catch a porcupine, the question wasn’t whether it would be grilled and consumed – it would – but whether doing so would make the utensils used treif – non-kosher. The late Col. Nahum Lev, who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, told the author: “I was the fourth religious soldier in the unit’s history and the first who was an officer. I had to prove that one could be religious and serve in an elite unit.” What actually happened, however, is that Lev “took off his kippa” – ceased to be observant – during his service.

The book is rife with indignant testimonies from Orthodox veterans, and presents its case via a model similar to that of the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence – only in a religious-Zionist version – in regard to the alienated approach of the army establishment. The author goes on to attribute the religious public’s desire to wield influence in the IDF, after their relatively inferior status in the past, to being behind the rapid increase in the number of religious officers and the key posts they now occupy.

At the same time, the religious-Zionist movement should find cause for concern in the results of a survey quoted in the book about the proportion of soldiers who attended high-school yeshivas but “lost their religion” during their army service. The survey, done some years ago, related to graduates of such flagship yeshivot as Netiv Meir, Horev, Midrashiat Noam and Kfar Haroeh. According to the data, about half the graduates of those institutions ceased to be observant during their army service, while among those who became officers or served in elite units the proportion reached between 70 and 80 percent. (Most do not return to Orthodoxy.)

The difficulty religious soldiers have had in coping with the secular atmosphere around them in the IDF, and the fear of secularization in general, generated pressure on the IDF by the religious political parties and the Chief Rabbinate to establish separate units for religious soldiers along with religious mekhinas. The latter have been a huge success story. For example, some 400 candidates apply each year for the program at the West Bank settlement of Eli. About 10 of its graduates are battalion commanders in combat units and hundreds more are officers throughout the IDF. In an average class of about 140, more than 50 percent subsequently go on to be officers.

Three stories of heroic deeds by IDF soldiers were engraved in the collective memory in the past decade. These include Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno from Sayeret Matkal, who was killed in an operation in Lebanon, and two majors, both deputy battalion commanders in the Golani brigade: Roi Klein, who fell in the battle of Bint Jbeil in the Second Lebanon War, and Eliraz Peretz, who was killed in a clash on the Gaza border. All three were observant; all were graduates of the Eli pre-military academy.

The book sheds light on the religious revolution that has rocked the IDF in recent decades, painting a picture of a present that is radically different from that of the past. For example, during basic training, religiously observant new recruits to the Golani brigade are exempt from activity in the morning until they have finished their prayers. In the past, the religious soldiers prayed after roll call and exercises. In the IDF of the third millennium, the religious soldiers apparently wield an influence over the brigade’s training schedule.

The generation of “knitted kippas” (religious zionists) of the 1970s channeled its energy into the establishment of settlements within the context of their army service. The goal of the current generation is to serve in combat units and climb the army’s promotional ladder. Fear of secularization has declined as the yeshivas and the ethos of the community they reflect took root, and as observant officers became a source of inspiration and a role model for those who followed.

A timely question raised in the book is whether the religious community is plotting to take control of the army. Magal believes that some members of the community indeed wish for this, and many would like, for example, to see a religious chief of staff, but the author also lets the figures speak for him. According to the statistics he cites, 35 percent of the graduates of the Officers Training School (Bahad 1) are religiously observant (three times their proportion in the population), and almost a quarter of the soldiers from the settlement of Efrat, outside Bethlehem, enter an officers course. No fewer than 70 percent of those serving in the Maglan Special Forces unit are religious. Of the IDF’s five infantry brigades, Golani has the highest proportion of observant soldiers and officers, followed by Paratroops, Givati, Kfir and Nahal. It’s estimated that some 40 percent of the command staff in the Paratroops are religious.

The bottom line is clear and unequivocal: The religious-Zionist movement is exercising a decisive influence on the IDF. It’s unlikely that the case of the religious cadets, who were expelled from Bahad 1 in September 2011 because they left the auditorium when a female singer took the stage, will repeat itself in an era in which the commanders of officers training courses themselves are, in growing numbers, wearing kippas.

The rise of the religious community in the IDF was made possible in large measure by the fact that many members of Israel’s secular society began to ascribe less importance to military service than previously. The place of those who once proudly hoisted high the Zionist banner and achieved great things under it, is now being taken by those who view the Jewish people’s revitalization in the Land of Israel as part of fulfilling a divine imperative.

Magal, an editor at the economic newspaper Globes who grew up in a religious settlement but is no longer observant, turns the spotlight on scenarios that worry the IDF High Command. Its greatest concern is soldiers who do not consider the “last word” to come from the war room or the General Staff, but from on high. In one such scenario, for instance, the military could confront a mass revolt sparked by a religion-driven crisis provoked by an extensive evacuation of settlements. The book shifts, therefore, from describing the IDF as a kippa-removing experience to a reality in which the tables are turned: Those who once made their observant comrades-in-arms feel uncomfortable are gradually becoming those under threat, in some cases apprehensive of spreading religiosity in the ranks.

David Zoldan is the author of “The Yarmulke and the Helmet,” about the first ultra-Orthodox army unit. He also participated in the Knesset committee that examined the question of a more equitable “sharing of the burden” in Israeli society.