The religious Zionist revolution in Israel's political arena, which was a point of contention between the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi in the recent elections, has been going on in major areas in the country for some years. It is happening in academia, in the media, in education and, most of all, in the Israel Defense Forces. A new book of articles about the issue was recently published as part of a special project entitled Religion, Politics and the Military in Israel.
It's doubtful whether any other picture illustrates the change in the IDF's command echelon from year to year as much as the photo of the last moment of the graduation ceremony of the officers' course at Training Base 1. As the newly-minted officers throw their berets in the air, the crocheted skullcaps on their heads are visible. Similar pictures can be seen at the graduation ceremonies of the company and brigade commanders' courses.
One doesn't need to look at Naftali Bennett or the fairly high votes that his party, Habayit Hayehudi, garnered among the army to realize that in a manner of speaking, crocheted skullcaps are taking over the IDF. While only 12 percent of the country's general population describes themselves as religiously observant and only 13.7% of army recruits are graduates of the national-religious school system, the percentage of religiously observant people who graduate from infantry officers' courses is now about 35%. The traditional place of the agricultural settlements (the kibbutzim and the moshavim) in the IDF is being taken by the religious Zionist elite.
But the very thing that is a source of pride for the religious-Zionist sector, a common subject of discussion and a reason for high praise from the country's leaders, who frequently mention religious Zionism's significant contribution to the IDF's combat ranks, is making other people in Israel lose sleep at night. The research project entitled "Religion, Politics and the Military in Israel" comes out of this concern.
The fear on the part of broad circles on the Left and in academia — a fear that is stated almost explicitly — is that this is not only a process that results from demography and motivation, but is also the result of a deliberate policy on the part of religious Zionist movement leaders. According to this conspiracy theory, behind this policy lurks a goal: to increase the religious Zionist presence in the IDF's command echelon. This would enable the religious Zionist movement to increase its influence and ability to political decisions — namely the evacuation of settlements, which the religious Zionist movement utterly opposes, as part of a peace settlement.
The 626 pages of this book, entitled "Between the Skullcap and the Army Beret" (published by Modan and the Kinneret Institute for Society, Security and Peace Studies in Israel), will certainly cause an uproar here. The book's editor is Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist of the IDF and the deputy head of the National Security Agency. He was also the initiator of Religion, Politics and the Military in Israel, which is also a project of the Kinneret Institute, which was named for the 13th chief of staff, the late Dan Shomron.
Gal brought together an impressive group of researchers to discuss the subject, and their work resulted in this collection of essays. The researchers who are concerned over the increasing number of religious Zionist officers in the IDF, who see it as a strengthening of religious fundamentals in the army or in society, are well represented. Those who see such categorization as mistaken, misguided and misleading have a respectable showing as well.
Gal sees the debate that gave rise to the book as a contribution in itself. He does not understand the positions of Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Chief Education Officer Brig. Gen. Eli Sherameister, who, he says, "deny the potential problem that lies the increasing number of religious officers in the IDF." If it were up to Gal, the chief of staff would redefine the distribution of roles between the chief rabbinate and the chief education officer, "restore the chief rabbinate to its traditional role — to provide religious services," and take from it all pretensions of providing educational or ideological guidance.
Futuristic novels as predictors of the future
Gal would also like to impose limitations on the "educational activity" of the IDF's commanding officers and create what he calls "official pluralism, not sector-based or one-dimensional." He states his vision as follows: "I don't just want the religious soldiers to drink in the statements of their religious commanding officer. I want the Arab soldier, the Druze soldier, the kibbutznik and the moshavnik to do that, too. The commanding officer has to be able to speak to everyone."
Gal is in good company. Professor Asa Kasher, one of the authors of the IDF's Code of Ethics, also calls for "restrictions on the commanders' freedom of action in sharing their educational points of view with their soldiers." Professor Kasher would like to make rules that would limit the subjects that commanders could discuss with their soldiers, the kinds of guest lecturers who spoke to the soldiers and the sites that soldiers visited.
The most radical author in Gal's anthology is undoubtedly Amir Bar-Or, the former head of the Military and Security Studies Program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. Unlike his colleagues Bar-Or, does not shrink from discussing situations that could result from the changes in Israel's future borders. He conducts a "thought experiment" based on literary texts taken from four futuristic novels, all of which describe how the decision to return to the 1967 borders or the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria affect the religious-Zionist population.
The first of these novels, "Avshalom ve-ha-nazir" (in English, "Absalom and the Monk") by Gideon Telpaz, tells the story of an IDF chief of staff who had a religious revelation as a child, kept it secret for years, was behind a military coup that overthrew a government "that never managed to put an end to bloody internal rioting," and concentrated his efforts in preparing for the war that would redeem the Jewish people in their land.
The second story, "Jeremiah's Inn" by Benjamin Tammuz, relates how Jeremiah Abramson copes with the Sanhedrin [the religious supreme court that existed in the time of the Mishna and the Talmud], which has imposed a religiously observant lifestyle on everyone under its jurisdiction after the Jerusalem-based monarchy has been re-established. According to Bar-Or, both stories provide "a glimpse into the processes that take place once the democratic regime is overthrown."
The third story Bar-Or uses to illustrate his point is "Malakhim bi-sheme yehudah" (in English, "Angels in Judea Sky") by Daniel Gelleri. This story describes the situation in Israel after the Six-Day War, ending its tale with a large-scale Jewish rebellion and a blood-soaked war that breaks out between those loyal to the Sanhedrin and the citizens who are loyal to the existing government.
After the army takes control of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, the rebels lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple on the ruins of the Second Temple. They blow up the television building in Romema and expel the Arabs who live in Judea and Samaria across the Jordan River.
The fourth book Bar-Or uses to illustrate his fears is "Code Blue" by Zvika Amit. "Code Blue" tells the story of a bloodless military coup that takes place after the government decides to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and the army, led by a group of both religious and secular officers, seizes power.
The point of departure of the two latter scenarios, according to Bar-Or, is the decisive influence of Jewish religious law on the laws of the country. "The ceding of portions of the Land of Israel is a terrible sin and an act against God's will," he quotes from "Code Blue" — as if the texts that appear there had been taken from posters of the present-day group Union of Rabbis for the Land and People of Israel. "The Torah, which was given by God, is above all orders. Religious law supersedes any law of the state that contravenes it."
Conservatism vs. post-modernism
Gal's group of researchers also has a fairly strong segment that opposes the way researchers such as Bar-Or, Kasher or Yagil Levy view the increasing religious character of the military. Members of this group believe that this increase in the army's religious character is being driven by the religious Zionist leadership, which is competing with secular society and trying to create its own dominance in the IDF's ranks to accomplish its own objectives, including ensuring the future of the settlement enterprise.
Dr. Yoaz Hendel, the former head of the Public Diplomacy Directorate of the Prime Minister's Office and today the head of the Institute of Zionist Strategy, notes, very logically, that most of Israel's citizens do not see the increasing religious presence as a negative thing for one very practical reason: there is no one else to fill the ranks.
Hendel explains: "The State of Israel is dealing with things such as draft evasion, non-enlistment and tendentious criticism of the IDF. As a result, most of the young people have changed their priorities. But the religious population is continuing to join the army out of a wish to excel in military service. The advantage of having them serve is simple and obvious: it's hard to criticize someone who does work for the country with no one to replace him."
In Hendel's view, the process of the army becoming more religiously observant is not so threatening because most of the army hardly feels it. "Outside the field units, the proportion of religious soldiers is the same as the proportion of religious people in the population." In addition, other commanding officers whose units are secular are openly envious of those who "succeeded in getting religious soldiers." For example, Brig. Gen. Agai Yehezkeli, the chief officer of the Armored Corps, told Hendel, "I'd like to see the religious take over the Armored Corps, just like they did in the infantry."
Professor Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, the head of the Education Ministry's committee for civics studies, believes that the situation among the religious Zionist population is varied and much more moderate than its image in the public discourse would suggest. He believes the bundle of stereotypes includes characteristics such as religious and political radicalism, fundamentalism, active messianism, damage to the rule of law, mass disobedience of orders and the organized use of violence on a large scale to the point of endangering democracy in Israel. Cohen is convinced that this is nothing but a misleading generalization.
Professor Cohen recalls that David Grossman describes the settlers in his book "The Yellow Wind" as possessing almost no books other than sacred texts — which is completely untrue. Cohen notes that author Tzvia Greenfeld describes the religious Zionist population after the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as "seeking to take over Israel from within, to take control of education, the military, the media and every possible institution."
A description like Sefi Rachlevsky's in his book "The Messiah's Donkey," which describes all the groups within the Orthodox camp as being swept away by ever-growing messianism, is disconnected from reality. Professor Cohen has many examples of the overgeneralization of the religious Zionist population, not only among authors, but also in academia and the media. Yet, he says, the actual situation is far different.
Religious Zionism has many, often contradicting opinions. Much of its population is open to the general culture, enjoy the same leisure activities that secular people do and engage in the arts. Some of them take a scientific approach toward the Torah, and groups representing religious feminism and "new rabbis" such as the members of Tzohar are constantly being established.
"Be a religious person in your home and an Israeli on the street," says Professor Cohen, adopting the language of researcher Yair Sheleg about the image of the new religious person. He says most religious Zionists do not see rabbis' authority as applying to areas that are not clearly religious in nature. This fact has a great deal of significance as far as the question that arises again and again in Israel about the possibility that soldiers might choose to obey their rabbis' orders rather than the army's.
But the most interesting contribution to the debate over increasing religiosity in the military is made by Udi Lebel and Shoshana Lovish-Omer of Ariel University. Their research deals with the relationship between the military and society, and they claim that something far different from the claimed religious influence is happening. Rather, it is a conservative backlash whose purpose is to bring the army, which is being restrained by "post-modernist" trends, back to its heyday.
Among these trends, Lebel and Lovish-Omer describe the IDF as "a military that engages in non-belligerent activity;" as "an army whose combat soldiers are more and more influenced by the organizations of civilian society, which work to reduce the use of violence and prevent escalation;" as "an army that designs its activity in the spirit of the international rules of warfare;" and as "an army that considers concepts such as 'the image of victory,' 'psychological warfare' and 'virtual victory' much more important than an actual victory on the battlefield."
Lebel and Lovish-Omer continue their description of the IDF's postmodernist traits. "The IDF is today an army that chooses to fight from a distance rather than create contact; an army that prefers aerial and artillery warfare over traditional ground warfare; and an army whose decision-makers are less and less willing to use it in wars because of society's oversensitivity to casualties among the reservists and because of the lack of legitimacy from within for risking soldiers and from without for harming noncombatants in enemy territory. Because of these things, the ones who plan the battles must settle for keeping the conflicts at low intensity and not winning them."
In addition, Lebel and Lovish-Omer note that the army itself has begun proposing territorial withdrawals and political compromises and making battle asymmetrical — to be managed rather than won — a goal that allows them to settle for "the image of victory" rather than victory itself.
Therefore, according to them, the increased influence of the religious Zionist population in the IDF, therefore, does not have the effect of making the army more religious. Rather, their influence can be seen as the desire to see the army return to "what it used to be," to "its glory days," and to work toward that end as a counter-response to the "postmodernism that led to a neoliberal military."
Lebel and Lovish-Omer believe that the religious-Zionist takeover of the military is no different from the takeover of Israel's founders (David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Ariel Sharon), who laid the groundwork for the IDF's original ethos.
Not only religious Zionism
Reuven Gal's question as to whether the religious Zionist movement's attempt to acquire positions of power and influence in the IDF is not a legitimate one when we consider that traditionally, the IDF's high command stimulated the political echelon and even shaped its positions toward territorial compromise in Judea and Samaria and on the Golan Heights as well.
In other words, can an attempt of this kind be considered not legitimate in light of the fact that when Israel held talks with Arab countries, its negotiating teams were often headed by generals who had shaped the opinions of the politicians? What's the difference? Could the position that many of the IDF's generals hold to this day not also be considered a religion of sorts? Why is it not dangerous or worrisome?
After all, the IDF's high command and the political echelon never kept themselves completely separate from each other. The mixing and mutual influence between politicians and IDF commanders have been part of the Israeli reality for a generation. The two groups influence each other. Why, then, is similar mixing wrong when it is believed that commanding offers from the religious Zionist population might influence the politicians in the opposite direction?
Gal emphasizes that the religious Zionist soldiers and combat personnel are among the best combat soldiers and commanders in the IDF. "The army can't do without them," he says, but adds, "Even if there were a hypothetical situation where a different sector, let's say the kibbutzim or the Russian immigrants, were to become more dominant — then, too, there would be room to discuss the potential danger of one particular sector exerting more influence in the army than its proportion of the population. In the past, similar studies were conducted about the kibbutzim, which once played the same role in the IDF that the religious Zionists play today. David Ben-Gurion dismissed Yigal Allon from the army for that very reason.
"The tendency of movements and world views and their striving for positions of power is legitimate as long as they maintain a multi-ideological framework. The moment there is a danger that one particular ideology is becoming dominant or exclusive — that's when the warning light goes on and the state is in danger."
Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Chief Education Officer Eli Shermeister are also part of the dialogue. The chief of staff says that the increased religious Zionist presence in the IDF is a reflection of the same trend in all other parts of Israeli society — in the economy, the business world and the media. He feels that this group, with its high ethics and strong Zionist ideals, serves as the basis the IDF's moral strength.
"Officers are not chosen or promoted on the basis of whether or not they wear a skullcap," Lt. Gen. Gantz says. The chief education officer believes that the service of religious and secular soldiers alongside each other, rather than constituting a source of tension, provides a unique opportunity for becoming acquainted and learning about one another.