The coverage of the ceremony of the changing of the chiefs of staff, and the visit by Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to the National Remembrance Hall on Mount Herzl and the Western Wall on the day he was sworn in, was of a ritual and symbolic nature. It was designed to convey the message that the new chief of staff is called on to carry out his role within a broad existential context of bereavement, Jewish revival after the Holocaust, a historical link to the Temple and protection from God, who chose the Jewish people out of all the nations and one day will redeem them.
The chief of staff spends his day carrying out routine, almost banal tasks: preparing a budget, building military force, ensuring a continuation of the occupation and directing the campaign against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. But he also has a ritual task. He is the high priest of the Israeli religion, which is a late development of the ancient Jewish religion.
God sent Abraham to the Land of Israel and promised to make him a great nation. He gave Moses the constitution, the Ten Commandments. He gave David a kingdom. Since David’s fall, the Jews have been waiting for the Messiah. Instead they got a Holocaust, which only intensified their adherence to redemption. They are still convinced that their God will redeem them.
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The Israeli religion expanded the principles of the Jewish religion: Israelis worship the memory of the Temple that was destroyed, the memory of the Holocaust, the memory of their fallen sons, and the God who promised them that they were a Chosen People – and they offer live sacrifices. Not in the Temple, but on the battlefield and in the alleyways of the refugee camps in the occupied territories. They don’t sacrifice doves, they sacrifice human beings, young men, soldiers.
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Because they are certain this will speed up the redemption. And the chief of staff is the high priest. He is in charge of the sacrificial ritual – with God at his side, the wind of the Holocaust at his back and the spirits of the fallen surrounding him. That is the holy trinity of the Israeli religion: the Israel Defense Forces, the Holocaust, the Blessed Holy One.
This religion sanctifies death and feeds it with the living. That is why there is a growing demand for the appointment of bereaved mother Miriam Peretz as president. She has gained the image of the high priestess of the sanctification of death for the sake of God and for the sake of the state, of justifying it and even seeing it as a positive value that grants supreme existential meaning to the lives of young Israelis. In their death they will fulfill their destiny.
It is taken for granted that when Aviv Kochavi gives an order that sends soldiers on a mission during which they risk their lives, he does so mainly from professional and practical considerations – security-related, strategic, tactical, somewhat political. But for that there is no need for him to light a memorial candle, to receive a blessing from the army chaplain and to insert a note into the Western Wall, while placing his hand on the ancient stones and lifting his eyes to the heavens in a photogenic pose of righteousness.
Israelis who do not share this religion felt uncomfortable with the ritualistic coverage and the ritualistic occasions. They prefer to have the IDF simply do its job. But it’s already impossible to extricate the IDF from ritual, to sever it from the Israeli religion whose sacred texts are the headlines in Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom and the teleprompter of TV’s Yonit Levi.
Kochavi’s predecessor Gadi Eisenkot, a professional soldier, managed to prevent this religion that reigns in the country from dictating to him the need to offer additional human sacrifices. Maybe Kochavi will also stand in the breach. But the public’s ritual hunger to see the chief of staff as the high priest of live sacrifices, offered to save the Jewish people, is stronger than ever.
A new chief of staff will be seen as a promise of additional sacrifices, new wars. His assumption of the position involves an expectation of action. It is an exalted religious status.