Opinion |

The Orthodox Nationalist Army

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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Israeli security forces stand between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, West Bank, last month.
Israeli security forces stand between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, West Bank, last month.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP
yossi klein
Yossi Klein

The stories about Jewish terrorists who beat up Palestinians under the protection of the Israel Defense Forces fly right by us. Photos are something else. Reading about an attack on women and children isn’t like seeing it.

We’ve digested the occupation without acknowledging its presence. But we have a hard time ignoring pictures. Last week a disturbing scene spread through social media: A Jewish terrorist is about to harm two Palestinian women; Judea Brigade commander Col. Yishai Rosilio, who is standing not far away, watches calmly and does not try to prevent the attack.

As expected, the photo aroused disgust and shock. We didn’t see it on television, and rightly so. After all, there was nothing new in it. The military’s indifference to harming demonstrators is known. There were also people who looked at the photo and said with relief: Lucky that he isn’t one of ours. Where are “ours?” Ours are in the signal intelligence Unit 8200. Or abroad, or at the beach. Theirs are on the hills, chasing after children with flags.

We send our children to the Israel Defense Forces as an automatic reflex. This is what we have always done, and this is what we will do. Refusing to serve is the Doomsday weapon, the use of which is postponed until the very last minute. How can we recognize that minute? We don’t. It always comes too late. We work on ourselves and say we will wait a bit, you won’t be seeing our child in Hebron, the army in the territories isn’t really ours, it’s “theirs.”

The army is divided in two: The best to computers, the others to the territories. The IDF can’t do without either group. What is happening to the army is what happened to Jerusalem Day. Religious nationalism is taking control of it. From a people’s army it is turning into a strictly Orthodox nationalist army. Its status is becoming shaky. The public’s trust in it is waning, only two-thirds of potential compulsory conscripts enlist and their quality is declining.

The IDF has no alternative. It takes everyone who comes along. Soldiers that would have been sent to courses for cooks and drivers are now combat soldiers who chase after leftist demonstrators.

The connection between the combat soldiers and the settlers begins at the margins, in the field units, in the hosting in the settlements of minor generals and their families. “The permanent deployment of a military force inside a civilian community blurs the boundaries between them,” according to Prof. Yagil Levy of the Open University, who researches the relations between the army and society.

Israeli settlers scuffle with a Palestinian during a protest, in Masafer Yatta, south of Hebron, last month.Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

The boundaries are getting blurred. Religiously observant nationalists are gaining control of the officer ranks and driving away those who are secular. A class society is developing: The army cannot offer the combat soldiers what it offers the technological soldiers; they have no choice but to run around on the hilltops. The army wants them weak. It is built upon their weakness the same way rabbis rely upon their students’ ignorance.

Weakness creates cannon fodder. The balance of losses has changed: Seventy-eight percent of the military fatalities in the past 20 years, according to Prof. Levy, have come from the periphery. The army cannot manage without them. It nurtures its “Battlefield is best, bro” slogans; it doesn’t want a black butt to compete with a white butt for a spot in 8200.

The division of the army into superiors and inferiors is serving the religious right. It will teach the combat soldiers to hate the arrogant 8200 people and at the same time they will become loyal voters. Prof. Dan Miodownik of the Hebrew University, who studies civil wars, has written: “As long as military service continues to be compulsory it will be hard to change the political map.”

The religious right does not want to change the political map. The IDF is not going to relinquish compulsory conscription. It is preparing itself for religious nationalism the way a kitchen koshers itself for Passover. More than a third of the graduates of the officers’ training course last year were skullcap-wearers. Even MK Matan Kahana (Yamina), who is himself religiously observant, is concerned about the proliferation of skullcap-wearers in the course. Where are all the rest, he asks.

The rest aren’t in the field. The General Staff isn’t in control of the field. Its soldiers flee from Jewish terrorists in disgraceful alarm. Its officers will be the fighting nucleus of the settlers. Minor generals like Ofer Winter, Roi Zweig and Rosilio will be the security advisors to the opponents of a peace agreement. Now they are showing everyone that it’s not worth messing with them; they will ultimately be like the generals of the paramilitary OAS in Algeria.

“Strengthening” the army through religion is another stage in the “processes” leading to a foreknown end. It reflects the increasing nationalist-religious extremism in civil society here. Nothing will stop this. Not the secular left, not the rest of the world that doesn’t keep quiet, not the pre-conscription brain drain, and not even more chilling evidence in the trial pitting Netanyahu against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Maybe Iran will.

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