Keep Religion Out of the Army

The IDF must not draw its authority from God, religious leaders, verses of Scripture, or prayers. The outgoing and incoming IDF chief of staffs have a right to visit the Western Wall, but only on their free time.

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Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at the Western Wall, February 16, 2015.
Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at the Western Wall, February 16, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

Many soccer players in Israel’s Premier League have in recent years taken to putting one hand on their head, as if for a kippa the other on their forehead and reciting a brief prayer before going on to the field. It’s their version of putting on tefillin, a moment before running after the ball, mostly on the Sabbath — when, incidentally, the daily tefillin ritual is not performed.

This week, in the last game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ironi Kiryat Shmona, two substitutes, one from each team, who were sent in at exactly the same time, enacted this ritual standing side by side — and, presumably, petitioning the Creator with mutually exclusive requests. God was left with no choice, and the game ended in a tie.

I recalled the two players the next morning, when I learned from the newspaper that outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his successor, Gadi Eisenkot, rushed to Jerusalem’s Western Wall immediately after the transfer of command ceremony. The accompanying photograph showed both men at the plaza in front of the wall, one wearing a red beret and the other a brown one.

In an op-ed, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote (“Gantz: Apolitical, professional and cautious,” Feb. 17) that Gantz’s most important contribution in his four years as army chief of staff was his reinforcement of Israeli democracy. Amos Harel added, in a separate analysis (“New army chief inherits headaches on all fronts,” Feb. 19), that the burden of responsibility placed on Eisenkot’s shoulders was unique, and mentioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning to him: “You will not have a single day of grace.” The Hebrew news item related that Gantz and Eisenkot read Psalms and placed notes in the crevices of the wall, in keeping with tradition.

I don’t believe in divine providence. Even though I may be considered to be a “denier” in the religious sense, I do not deny either the analyses of Benn and Harel nor Gantz and Eisenkot’s right to visit the Western Wall, stick slips of paper into its cracks and recite prayers to God. As a citizen, parent, teacher and, in this case only, as someone who served in the IDF as a soldier and officer, I have just one demand: They should visit privately, in their free time. And since I know chiefs of staff have no free time, then under the cover of darkness, without photographers and reporters, as far as possible from the public eye. I find it difficult to express exactly how destructive, damaging and insulting, to my mind, was the message that Gantz and Eisenkot sent in their well-publicized dash to the Western Wall, but I will try: From my perspective, it is tantamount to an emergency reserve duty call-up order.

One of the most dangerous processes taking place within Israel in general and the defense establishment in particular is known by the overly academic term religionization — the subordination of the state’s national, civil and strategic interests to the service of the Lord of Hosts and, more precisely, to the service of those who have the chutzpah to speak in His name. To use a less euphemistic term, we are talking about the “Haredization” of religious Zionism. In even less polite, but no less precise language, it is insanity that leads to the famous “holy war” remarks of Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

The saddest thing about this is that Gantz is actually seen as having taken action at various key junctures, before and after the war in the Gaza Strip, to prevent the IDF from turning into a fundamentalist militia. And Eisenkot, even before his appointment, was a symbol of moderation and equanimity. Nor does anyone doubt the intelligence and the sensitivity of both men. So how did the inherent danger of a commanding officer who appears to be worshipping the stones of the Temple escape them?

There is no holiness in stones, nor in earth. The IDF must not draw its authority from God, nor from religious leaders, verses of Scripture, prayers or religious folklore. The only possible source of its authority is the state — with its cabinet, its legislature and its citizens. Any other message constitutes an attack on Israel’s security and the rock of its foundation.

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