Opinion |

Torah, Testosterone and Nationalism: Why Two West Bank Rabbis' Anti-liberal Crusade Imploded

Religious Zionism's flagship rabbis, founders of the elite Eli yeshiva, dreamt of building an Orthodox cadre to lead Israel. Their bigoted and foul-mouthed outbursts have now stirred public outrage - but their own flock stopped obeying them years ago

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Shawled IDF soldiers pray in a staging area near the Israel Gaza Strip border, Nov. 19, 2012
IDF soldiers pray in a staging area near the Israel Gaza Strip border, Nov. 19, 2012Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

27 years ago, if you were a religious Zionist teenager, brimming with testosterone and idealism, about to embark on your next stage of life, there was just one place to be. On a bleak hillside, in the (then) tiny settlement of Eli on the southern Samarian hills, where a new breed of men was taking shape.

Those men were just like you, had gone to the same boring yeshiva high schools and endured all those mind-numbing Talmud lessons from grey old rabbis.

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Rabbi Eli Sadan, left, speaking with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein and IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, 2016. Credit: Lior Shtull / Bnei David military academy

But here they had broken free. They were taller, striding around in fabulous brown boots with red shoelaces and they all had girlfriends. They still studied Talmud, but it was interspersed with rousing lectures on Jewish identity and destiny, practical lessons on how to keep Shabbat in an isolated outpost deep inside Lebanon and strenuous workouts.

And anyway, all the study was temporary. Because if you belonged to the select 60 chosen to attend Eli, or as it was more formally known, the Bnei David (Sons of David) pre-military academy, you were on your way to becoming part of the next generation of the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces.

The Duke of Wellington is rumored to have said that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton". The next wars of Israel were to be won on the windswept hilltops of Eli.

Until the late 1980s, male 18 year-olds leaving religious Zionist high schools had basically two options. To be drafted straight in to the IDF, like their secular peers, leaving a sheltered existence for three years of coarse military life. The overwhelming majority who chose that path emerged at 21 with little, if any, of their piety intact. For many, the army was liberation. For others, dislocation.

The second option, for those reluctant to be exposed to the secular environment, was to join a hesder yeshiva, study for 12 or more hours a day and eventually join the IDF in a separate platoon or company of like-minded students. It had the advantages of serving the nation while maintaining your protective bubble.

Facebook post from the Bnei David yeshiva at EliCredit: Facebook

For some, that was the perfect solution. But many, pressured in to joining a hesder yeshiva by teachers and parents, despaired at yet more years of Talmud and the prospect of postponing their inevitable emergence into wider Israeli society.

In 1988, Rabbis Yigal Levinstein and Eli Sadan offered a third way, when they founded Bnei David at Eli. Its stated objective was to provide a framework for those who were planning to join the IDF straight from high school, to spend a year "preparing" themselves spiritually and physically.

As religious educators, Levinstein and Sadan were concerned over the "loss" of so many young men entering the IDF with kippas and leaving bareheaded. But they had a much grander vision as well. Building a new generation of IDF officers who would replace the secular, left-wing kibbutzniks whose numbers were already shrinking away.

In many ways, Eli succeeded beyond its founders' wildest dreams. Its alumni would soon find themselves in the most elite of IDF units and on the parade ground of the officers’ school at Mitzpe Ramon. Within 15 years, 40 percent of the graduates of the infantry officers course were religious Zionist.

A view of the settlement of Eli in September 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

The success wasn’t just in the numbers of kippa-wearing young officers, commanding in the field: Eli spawned dozens of imitators. At first these were more religious pre-military academies, founded to cater for the hundreds of young men who couldn’t get in to Eli (full disclosure, this writer was not accepted either).

But then secular educators began copying the model, and quarter of a century later, the number of secular and mixed academies had outnumbered the religious ones. And these catered to a much more diverse audience, and also accepted women.

Eli had pioneered the concept whereby taking a year off, between high school and military service, for study and voluntary work, choosing to enter the IDF and later on university and employment, became a virtue. The mechinot (academies) and the shnat sherut (year of service) programs had become the breeding grounds for a new Israeli serving elite.

But it wasn’t the new elite the rabbis of Eli had envisaged. Most of the 54 recognized mechinot nowadays accept women and are either secular or mixed. Nearly all of them are within the Green Line and quite a few aspire to resuscitate the old socialist-Zionist ethos of the kibbutz movement.

I got my first inkling that the Eli model was less from perfect 18 years ago, when a former colleague from my very brief teaching career invited me to the new academy he had founded. Most of its students were Ethiopian-born, and as part of their preparation for military service, they were also completing their bagrut (high school matriculation) exams.

An Israeli female soldier from a mixed-gender battalion takes part in a drill in northern Israel, September 13, 2016.Credit: Jack Guez, AFP

"The snobs from Eli won’t let us join the Council of Mechinot," he complained. "They only want 'officer-material.' Not my guys who didn’t finish high school." Without the recognition of the council, which at the time Eli was the most influential member, students could not receive a 12-month deferral of their military service.

Fast forward to this day and age and the rabbis of Eli are the focus of serial media storms.

Barely a week passes without another awkward quote from one of their lectures making headlines, from derogatory statements about women and "gay perverts" to slamming the IDF for trying to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties.

Just the last in the sequence, this week, was of Rabbi Sadan suggesting that the Holocaust may have happened, because "in the 20th century most of the Jewish people desecrated the Shabbat, fornicated and forsook the Torah."

In fairness to Sadan, the quote was from a lecture he gave nearly five years ago, and in it he also said that no-one knows why the Holocaust occurred, certainly not him.

It should also be noted that many of his and other rabbis’ quotes that have appeared recently in the media have been cherry-picked by a militant secular group, trying to get the academy, which enjoys state budgets, de-funded.

Two men march in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride Parade in 2011.

But it is also clear from the sheer availability of quotes from the rabbis fulminating against the morals of Israeli society, and particularly the IDF's openness towards the service of women and homosexuals in as many command and combat roles as possible, that they are beginning to realize their crusade has failed.

The media ritually wails of hadata – the allegedly accelerating religious indoctrination of the IDF, pointing to the disproportionate numbers of devout officers at all levels of the command hierarchy.

But those critics fail to understand that the army has transformed these religious men to a much deeper degree than they have changed it. While their old-time rabbis continue railing against female fighters and gay officers, it’s their students who are serving alongside them, overwhelmingly without complaint.

Just as 13 years ago, these religious officers obeyed orders and carried out the dismantlement of settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria during Israel's withdrawal, they understand today that they are serving an increasingly pluralistic and diverse Israeli society. What’s more, many of those women serving with them are increasingly themselves graduates of religious high schools and academies.

The rabbis’ frustration is both revealing and encouraging. 30 years after its foundation, Eli has failed in bringing about the revolution it was founded to bring about.

The new Israeli elite is still forming, and many of its future members will have spent a year in a pre-military academy or voluntary program. But it is shaping up to be a very different elite than the one they planned.

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