Israeli Army's 'Purity of Arms' Doesn't Only Apply to Secular Soldiers

Those who make outrageous claims about integrating religious soldiers into the Israeli army must be reminded that every soldier, religious or not, has his own moral conscience

A religious man speaks to a group of soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 16, 2017.
Emil Salman

There’s a certain similarity between the fear that the ultra-Orthodox will seize control of the Israel Defense Forces, as Carolina Landsmann expressed in these pages last week – control that is exhibited, as she sees it, in “proselytizing” secular soldiers – and the fear of those Haredim who oppose the draft and incessantly warn that their young men will be secularized by the army.

The panic over the issue of the religious population and the ultra-Orthodox in the army never fails to surprise me each time it erupts. Even more so, I am outraged by the images from the world of “Hezbollazation,” as if there is a greater connection between religiosity and the violation of military ethics and the “purity of arms” (the use of weapons only when justified) than the connection between those two things and secular agendas.

One has to have a particularly short memory to suppress the heavy price paid by humanity in the 20th century for the cruelty of the German and Russian armies, as well as those of other countries, which didn’t exactly suffer from an excess of religiosity. To illustrate this, let me note that during World War II, over 10 million people were killed on the Russian front, where both sides waved the banners of secularism and antireligion.

Every soldier and officer has his own moral conscience. Each has the potential to behave immorally or cruelly. Such behavior is not registered anywhere in the names of the religious or the Haredim. Accordingly, ultra-Orthodox and religious soldiers don’t owe anyone any proof that they can balance between the ethics of combat and their loyalty to religious principles. If anything, the religious moral compass tends to be especially cautious with life-and-death issues in general and with combat ethics and purity of arms in particular.

That’s what I was taught by my rabbis, like thousands of other religious soldiers who were educated in the same yeshiva study halls as I was. Faulty morals are not the result of secular or religious ideologies; they are the product of immoral individuals. Such people can turn the most moral ideology into a horror, since doing so suits their problematic personalities. Such behavior has been seen throughout history in religious and secular leaders alike, as it is today.

Landsmann would surely agree when I say that the only way to prove or disprove an argument is by testing it. Religious soldiers have served in the IDF since it was founded, including in senior command positions. To the best of my knowledge, in the 70 years of our state’s existence, there is no evidence of any kind that they are less moral than secular soldiers. Yet this doesn’t stop Landsmann and others who think as she does from repeatedly making the same outrageous claims about the integration of religious and ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the IDF.

This raises difficult questions regarding their motives for this crusade. At best it’s the result of ignorance; at worst, it’s hatred for hatred’s sake, a populist attempt to incite against good citizens just because they are different from Landsmann and her friends.

The IDF is not only strong in the face of its enemies. It is also strong enough to include healthy multiculturalism in its ranks. Religious and Haredi soldiers have been and will be an inseparable part of the Israeli army, just like secular soldiers. And as in civilian life, the IDF will need all of us to continue seeking to strike the right balances and find the greatest possible common ground without forcing anyone in civil society or the army to compromise on their basic values – a complex but critical mission. Landsmann’s approach makes this possibility less likely, just like the approach by the extremists on the opposite end of the political map.

Daniel Goldman is chairman of Gesher, a nonprofit association that promotes dialogue between different segments of Israeli society.