The People’s Army, or the Rabbis’ Army?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 25, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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At first it was little more than a cat-and-mouse game between a few soldiers and their officers, but Israel’s top government and military brass worry that it’s a sign of much worse to come. A handful of enlisted men were brandishing signs, vowing to disobey if they’re ordered to dismantle settlements and evacuate settlers.

Now, a month later, worse has indeed come: a rapidly building confrontation between the government and the army, on one hand, and leading rabbis of the religious-nationalist settler movement on the other. What’s at stake is the government’s ability to carry out any peace agreement that includes ceding territory and removing settlements in the West Bank — meaning, in effect, any peace agreement at all.

On October 22 and again on November 16, a handful of troops in the Kfir Brigade, an infantry unit that patrols the West Bank, unfurled hand-lettered banners declaring that they would “not expel Jews.” Both incidents came on the heels of routine operations to dismantle illegal settlement structures. In all, six soldiers were jailed for up to 30 days; four were permanently barred from combat units. A few days after the second incident, officers found a third banner ready for use at the Kfir training base.

The incidents brought stern public rebukes from higher-ups, including the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined in, warning November 17 that if soldiers begin deciding which orders to obey, it will bring the “collapse” of Israel.

At military headquarters, attention has been focused on a network of religious academies called hesder yeshivas, part of an army program that allows Orthodox recruits to divide their service between active duty and Torah study. Several hesder yeshiva deans, a minority, openly preach a religious duty to disobey orders to dismantle settlements. The arrested troops were their graduates. In a November 17 meeting with a hesder rabbis’ committee, the army’s manpower chief, Major General Avi Zamir, demanded that all 41 yeshiva deans publicly denounce insubordination within a week or face removal from the hesder program. The committee promptly issued a statement denouncing “political demonstrations” within the ranks, but pointedly making no mention of insubordination.

Since then events have accelerated. At a ceremony in Jerusalem, a Chabad-linked pro-settler organization awarded $5,600 each to the families of the first two jailed soldiers. Fifty pro-settler rabbis gathered in Jerusalem to voice support for the hesder yeshivas threatened with army sanctions. High school seniors at a convention of a religious youth movement, Bnei Akiva, unfurled banners of their own vowing not to evacuate settlers. Three recruits reporting for the draft on November 25 tried to carry a banner inside the induction base and scuffled with guards who stopped them.

On the other side of the coin, Barak and Ashkenazi have been speaking out repeatedly in the media and in speeches to inductees, warning of harsh punishments for anyone advocating insubordination. On November 24, soldiers in a special all-Orthodox unit were forced to undergo body searches for protest banners before entering a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the unit’s founding. The unit, Nahal Haredi, ostensibly recruits youngsters from the non-nationalist Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, but it also attracts militant settler youth seeking more rigorous Torah study than hesder yeshivas offer.

In newspaper interviews, religious youths complain that they join the army to fight “the enemy,” not fellow Jews, and that evacuation duty puts them in an “impossible” position. Some pundits on the right, seeking to minimize the religious character of the dispute, argue the issue in procedural terms: that law enforcement duties belong properly to the police rather than the military. Their point is that the army’s duty is to protect Israel’s security, and that removing settlements is “political” rather than security-related.

The unstated assumption is that ceding land to fulfill a peace agreement — or, for that matter, to establish a coherent border between Israel and Palestine — would reflect only leftist ideology, since it couldn’t possibly make Israel more secure.

The military command has been nervously anticipating this challenge. A secret report a year ago warned that yeshiva graduates comprise 30% of the junior officer corps and rising. In a decade they will be the military’s senior commanders. If a peace agreement isn’t reached in 15 years or so, Israel may no longer have an army willing to carry out its side.

Israel isn’t the only country facing direct challenges to government authority from the religious establishment. It’s commonplace in Muslim countries — that is, in the ones where the religious establishment doesn’t already control the government. It’s surfacing in some parts of America, where Christian faith is sometimes taken as a virtual test of fitness for office. You see it here and there when Catholic bishops try to force pro-choice lawmakers to change their positions by threatening to withhold sacraments. The circumstances are wildly different, but at the bottom they all represent religious efforts to force by ecclesiastical authority public policy outcomes that couldn’t be achieved by democratic means.

If democracy means anything, it starts with the principle of majority rule. A democratic majority can’t rule, though, unless the minority agrees to be outvoted. A decent democracy allows religious minorities to believe and behave differently, but that doesn’t mean letting them tell everyone else how to behave.

The difference in Israel is that the stakes are vastly higher. The debate is over how to save the country from annihilation. A hefty majority believes Israel has to reach some compromise agreement with its neighbors in order to survive. A passionate minority believes that would bring down God’s wrath. The question is, who decides?

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

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