God’s Agent: National-Religious Soldiers in Israel’s Army

Every time Israel goes to war, you will be able to open almost any newspaper and find variations on the same striking image. During a moment of pause, a soldier will have been photographed as he prays. Standing in front of his tank or artillery piece, he will be dressed in his uniform, shawl draped over his shoulders and tefillin, the small boxes containing Jewish scripture, wrapped around his arm and head. This image of an Israeli soldier praying conforms to the international image of Israel as a country where militarism blends with religious piety. Compared to other armies with similar technical capabilities, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has an unusually strong flavour of religiosity. The IDF is not merely a tool for defence; it has played a crucial role in paving the way for Jewish settlement of the occupied territories and is increasingly led by Orthodox soldiers from the national-religious community.

The stereotypes of militarism and piety obscure the awkward position of the national-religious soldier. He enjoys a range of concessions to his life style yet the reality of serving in the only army which conscripts women provokes endless worry. A significant number of national-religious soldiers may combine military service with religious study, creating what is in many ways an army within-an-army. This has been done through the Hesder Yeshivot: the religious schools which allow soldiers to combine army service with Torah study. Still, there are dozens of instances where the requirements of Jewish observance, conflict with the reality of serving in the modern army of a modern state. Most puzzling for the outside observer however, is the extent to which their loyalty to the state is doubted. These soldiers are at the frontline of Israel’s battles and they are widely praised for having inherited the mantle of the courageous Jewish fighter, once held by the socialist, secular youth of the Kibbutz movement. Yet these same soldiers are a cause of great concern across the political spectrum. Many prominent leaders and famous journalists would agree with Amos Harel, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz military correspondent, when he wonders “whether it will be possible once again to rely on the IDF” to evacuate settlements as battalion commands increasingly become the preserve of religious soldiers. The potential for mass disobedience in the face of orders to evacuate settlements, such as during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 is considered a very real risk for the future and has given many leaders pause for thought before they order Israeli soldiers to take actions against Jewish communities in the territories.

The risk of mass disobedience is greatly exaggerated, and is the product of a deliberate attempt by settlers and seculars alike to create an allegiance between the mainstream of the national-religious community and the settlers. It ignores the fact that the vast bulk of national-religious soldiers have demonstrated that in the final instance their obedience lies with the state. For all the smoke and thunder, national-religious soldiers have demonstrated their unusual willingness to put their lives on the line and to become the self-sacrificial core of the IDF described by Prof. Yagil Levy. In the run up to the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, the country was quaking after assertions of pro-settler rabbis forbidding evacuation. The claim was stark: evicting Jews from settlements to hand over land to non-Jews was strictly forbidden and would constitute a grievous violation of Jewish Law, drawing on a hitherto dusty corpus of law forbidding violence between Jews and considering the covenant to establish the Jewish people in the Land of Israel paramount over the petty expediencies demanded by security concerns The settlements and settlers were a critical part of God’s design and those who uprooted the settlers would never be forgiven in heaven – a worrying proposition for the observant soldier. That these declarations could come from figures such as Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the head of the nerve centre of the settlement movement the yeshiva, school of Jewish learning, Merkaz HaRav Kook, added to the significance of these declarations.

Pundits imagined themselves as unburdened Cassandras, wailing at the thought of Jew fighting Jew, yet when the moment came national-religious soldiers did as they were told. The settlements were evacuated and what few incidents of disobedience occurred were dealt with rather severely. The Chief of Staff at the time of the evacuation, Dan Halutz, reported that only 63 soldiers refused to follow orders during the evacuationi. Other studies put the number somewhere between 150 and 200, but even this figure is low and highlights the discrepancy between prediction and reality. Obviously, these numbers would have been higher had the IDF not made sure that units which were largely national-religious did not receive orders to undertake the physical eviction of settlers. Other somewhat cosmetic steps were taken, such as the strict orders for all soldiers and police officers to wear their caps at all times. Ostensibly this was to prevent against heatstroke, but in reality it was to prevent settlers identifying religious soldiers and appealing specifically to them. Even if these efforts halved the number of disobedient soldiers, it still meant that the calls for thousands of religious soldiers to disobey orders fell on deaf ears. When the stakes were at their highest, during the disengagement, observant soldiers and officers stayed in line.

Years after the Gaza withdrawal of 2005, this idea of disloyalty on the part of the national-religious soldiers persists. It is easy to see why as secular soldiers, no matter how right-wing their politics, are far less likely to embrace a Zionism that prioritises redeeming the Land of Israel, such as religious Zionism promoted by the late Rabbi Kook, over a Zionism that favours the strength and success of the State of Israel. The suspicion at the heart of all worries of disobedience within the IDF is that national-religious soldiers secretly regard the state as a mere tool of God’s plan, in the same way that the settlers themselves do. After all, settlers who are activists are almost invariably born of the national-religious community and as political actors, are embedded within the cultural and religious space of their community. These links are strong but their significance for discipline within the military is seriously overstated, as both the settler and secular leadership misunderstand the main concerns of religious soldiers. Simply put, national-religious soldiers in the IDF are far more concerned with how to maintain strict observance while still serving in the military than they are with the messianic role ascribed to them by settler rabbis.

A ground-breaking 2007 study by Stuart Cohen shows that in correspondence with rabbis over how to behave during military service soldiers are rarely concerned with issues of settlement.ii This response follows a long tradition of rabbis and their followers engaging in correspondence to determine how to apply Jewish principles to the reality of life. Until the foundation of Israel, they rarely dealt with questions of military life, war and – most importantly – loyalty to a state governed by Jews and so, over past decades, rabbis have had a chance to break new ground and construct a whole new body of work about how Jews can work their way through the new ethical obstacles created by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As noted, these responsa only occasionally address grand issues of obedience and settlement. Far more effort is expended to answer the countless questions on how to observe Shabbat, for example if a soldier is in a support role during a combat operation, or how to behave around female soldiers. Rabbis do not shy away from instructing disobedience, telling some soldiers that they must refuse orders to participate in training sessions where they are touched by female soldiers or worse, where they are required to practice CPR on female soldiers. Yet most Rabbis issue no such instructions concerning when they must disobey orders to dismantle settlements.

Compared to these issues, the difficulties posed by politically motivated disobedience are minor. In fact, they are in the most part artificial and a result of secular Israelis crying wolf for their own purposes. Since the earliest days of the settlement movement, certain Chiefs of Staff and high-ranked officers have thwarted politicians who intended to evacuate illegal settlements, exemplified by the routine stonewalling of evacuation orders issued by civil authorities. They did so by warning that the army would be irreparably divided, with religious and right-wing soldiers refusing orders en masse, rather than deprive Jews of their territorial birthright. It was this intervention by a Chief of Staff – wielding this inflated threat – which won the day for the settlers during the Sebastia Affair: Chief of the General Staff Mordechai Gur defied the first government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1974 claiming that orders to evacuate a small group of settlers on Palestinian land southwest of Nablus would prompt bloodshed and mutiny within the army. It was the first and perhaps most typical example of how expansionist secular leaders have used suspicion of national-religious soldiers as leverage over their more peace-minded colleagues.

National-religious soldiers have become a whipping boy for the right-wing or the weak-willed among Israel’s secular political class. The often toxic relationship between secular and religious in Israel has been in some part exacerbated by the tendency to regard observant Jews in the army in much the same way officials of the British Raj viewed Indian soldiers – useful and brave but a cause for concern. This is not to deny that these suspicions have reasonable origins. The national-religious soldiers have many of the characteristics that could identify an activist military leadership, should they ever come to dominate the IDF, with a separate ideology from the national as a whole as well as a noted propensity to serve in combat units. The accommodations made to religious soldiers, even beyond the separate service track offered by Hesder yeshivot, have encouraged a filtering process where religious soldiers increasingly choose to serve in religious units, such as the religiously-dominated Golani Brigade.iii Yet, for the army leadership to operate as if their suspicions that the only thing preventing religious soldiers from launching an insurrection is the nurturing of the settlements is bad policy and even worse strategy.

Time and again the national-religious soldiers and the communities that they come from have proven their loyalty to a state that uses them as an excuse not to grapple with the existential threat to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians posed by settlement and the creeping annexation of Palestinian land.

Should the day ever come when the manifestations of religious Zionism are extinguished by the demands of Palestinians in the territories for basic human rights, the blame cannot be shifted onto the shoulders of a religious population which has demonstrated its willingness to follow evacuation orders, even as they principally opposed the evacuations of the Sinai in 1982 and of Gaza in 2005. The blame would lie with a largely secular political leadership that has prevaricated and manipulated public expectations for so long that it has become incapable of challenging the convenient self-deceptions that pass for policy in Israel today.

i Stuart Cohen, Tensions between Military Service and Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, 107. return to main text
ii Stuart Cohen, Tensions between Military Service and Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, 119. return to main text
iii Amos Harel, ‘Outgoing commander of IDF’s Golani brigade: “We’ve come a long way”‘, http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/outgoing-commander-of-idf-s-golani-brigade-we-ve-come-a-long-way-1.455760 return to main text
Israeli soldiers wearing prayer shawls pray at a tank staging area in southern Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip, 19 November 2012.
Israeli female soldiers in training.
Surrounded by media members, a Jewish settler confronts Israeli army Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman in the Jewish settlement of Morag in the Gush Katif settlement bloc, southern Gaza Strip Monday, Aug. 15, 2005. Jewish settlers locked the gates to their communities, formed human chains and burned tires to block troops from delivering eviction notices Monday, as Israel began its historic pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Protestors take part in a demonstration calling for an amendment to the country’s compulsory draft policy opposed by the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, in Tel Aviv July 7, 2012.

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