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Forget Judaism – the Army Is Israel’s State Religion

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An Israeli soldier wears a Kippah, on the border with Gaza, September 23, 2016
An Israeli soldier wears a Kippah, on the border with Gaza, September 23, 2016Credit: \ Ilan Assayag

Yesterday I asked a senior Israeli army officer, who also happens to be the scion of a famous rabbinical dynasty, what he thought about this week’s spat between a number of leading national-religious rabbis and the army’s high command over the integration of women in combat units. “I think it’s excellent that these things are being put out there for everyone to see,” he answered with a mocking smile. We both understood why he was smiling. This is one battle that the IDF has won even before a shot has been fired.

Anyone who is aware of the situation both within the army and the national-religious community knows that the rabbis have already lost. Their wailing against Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for having “ruined the IDF’s spirit” by allowing women to serve as combat officers and squadron commanders is basically cover for the fact that their own followers, the young religious men and women, have forsaken them and are flocking to serve in those mixed gender units.

Just last year, over a third of the female graduates of the national-religious education system chose to defy the rabbis and, instead of serving in the rabbinically-supervised civilian “national service,” enlisted in the IDF. That’s three times the proportion of only seven years ago. The same goes for the men.

The rabbis thought they had extracted a compromise from Eisenkot last year when he assured them that no conscript would be forced to serve in a unit alongside women. They believed that a stampede of religious conscripts for the small number of units which have been segregated for Haredi soldiers would force the IDF to reverse its policy of opening up more units and roles for women. It didn’t happen. Alumni of national-religious yeshiva high schools don’t seem too bothered by the presence of women when selecting which unit they prefer to serve in.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. For all the talk of a more religious army, the overwhelming majority of religious soldiers, when issued with contradicting orders in the past, chose to obey their commanding officers rather than the rabbis.

That was the case in 2005, when only a tiny handful of soldiers disobeyed orders to take part in the dismantling of the settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria, despite dozens of prominent rabbis saying that obeying those orders was forbidden by the Torah. In fact, every time the government has evicted settlers over the last fifty years, there were more religious men among the security forces doing the evicting than there were religious settlers being evicted.

For all the power of the religious establishment in Israeli politics, the IDF remains more powerful than organized religion.

A group of Knesset members this week founded the Knesset’s “secular lobby” to try and fight against religious legislation and coercion. Naturally, I’m on their side, but I failed to discern in the statements of the lobby’s founders any clear notion of what being a secular Israeli consists of in 2018.

Decades ago, you could still talk of what the early Zionist philosopher A.D. Gordon called “the religion of labor” – the early socialist Zionist ethos that consecrated tilling the land as the highest moral ideal to aspire to and live by. Not in today’s materialistic, high-tech Israel. Truly secular Judaism, both in Israel and the Diaspora, remains an ephemeral quantity, and that is what is special about it: You get to pick and choose and no one can impose on you their version of Judaism.

But as far as any form of Israeli secularism, or religion, goes, the IDF is the most powerful one Israel has today. It’s the closest thing we have to a state religion. It’s certainly the strongest stream of Judaism.

The IDF has its own customs and rituals, its inner language, priests, acolytes and taboos. And like any strong religion, it frequently clashes both with the political establishment and with other competing religions. Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Hartman Institute and one of the leading authorities on religion in today’s Israel, agrees. “The national religions rabbis saw the IDF as a holy manifestation of the nation’s will,” he says. “But now they’ve suddenly realized that the army is a competing religion that is winning over their own students. Hence their rage.”

Filling a vacuum

In recent years, the army’s high priests, or generals, have clashed with the rabbis repeatedly over the role of women in military life, as well as over control of the IDF’s Education Corps. And the rabbis were forced to give way. They’ve fought as well with the nationalist politicians, preaching against shoot-to-kill policies and the vigilantism that was creeping in during the short-lived “stabbings intifada” that reached its peak when Sgt. Elor Azaria summarily executed a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron.

Here the generals were less successful, as the politicians seem more attuned to the populist xenophobia in much of Israeli society. But it’s fascinating that Eisenkot and his colleagues felt they could get away with presenting their own moral code, diverging from that of their political masters.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the army is a bastion of liberal values and human rights. It isn’t. And the generals aren’t newborn feminists – their eagerness to integrate women in more roles is largely a result of necessity. Neither do I think it’s healthy for a civilian society to have the military play such a central role in defining its identity.

But in a period when politicians, on all sides, have failed so miserably to project a vision for Israel’s future, and rabbis are so lacking in authority, it’s only natural that an organization like the army is filling the moral vacuum. For better or worse, the IDF is now the most visible and potent form of secular Judaism.

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