Israel’s military brass is mildly frantic over a spreading phenomenon of political protest within the infantry ranks by soldiers threatening to disobey if ordered to dismantle settlement structures. Efforts to stem the threats are generating tensions between the military command and a network of army-linked yeshivas.
Twice in the past month soldiers in the West Bank-based Kfir Brigade have unfurled large banners declaring that their battalions would not “expel Jews.” Both incidents followed battalion operations to demolish illegal buildings in settlements.
A third banner was discovered today (November 19) at the Kfir training base in the Jordan Valley. Base commanders were uncertain who made it or when it was to be displayed, according to Ynetnews.com.
The first incident occurred October 22 at an induction ceremony at the Western Wall for recruits to the Shimshon Battalion, which had recently dismantled illegal buildings at Homesh, one of four settlements in the northern West Bank evacuated during the 2005 disengagement and now off-limits to Israeli civilians. The second incident occurred November 16 in the Nahshon Battalion, which had dismantled two illegal buildings at Neguhot, south of Hebron.
In all, six soldiers from the two units have been court-martialed and handed jail sentences ranging from 14 to 30 days. Four of them were demoted and permanently barred from combat units.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on November 17, the day after the second incident, that if “refusal” to follow orders gains ground, “it will bring about the collapse of the state.” Other leaders have issued similar warnings in recent weeks.
Within the army’s general command, particular attention is focused on yeshivot hesder, 41 military-linked rabbinical academies housing special army units that divide their army service between active duty and Talmud study. The deans of several Hesder yeshivas are said to have taught that soldiers must disobey commands contrary to religious law. The chief of the Israel Defense Force’s Manpower Division, General Avi Zamir, met with the five-man executive committee of the Union of Hesder Yeshivas November 17 and demanded that the union issue a clear statement condemning insubordination, according to various Orthodox and secular news outlets.
Unnamed army sources told Ynet that particular scrutiny was focused on the Elon Moreh yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, and the Har Bracha yeshiva under Rabbi Eliezer Melamed.
According to a Ynet report that was only partially translated into English, Zamir warned that yeshivas that had not begun taking firm, explicit action against insubordination within a week would have their ties with the army reexamined.
The yeshiva union issued a statement that evening condemning “political demonstrations” in the army, according to Ynet. It went on to demand that “isolated incidents such as these” not be used to demonize “an entire population” (tzibur shalem) of “dedicated youths faithfully serving the nation.”
The yeshiva union’s statement concluded: “The Union of Hesder Yeshivas calls for a deep dialogue within Israeli society over the use of the army for missions of a policing or law-enforcement character.” The statement made no mention of refusing to obey orders, either to condemn or endorse it. According to Ynet, quoting an unnamed Hesder official, the yeshiva deans fear that further army pressure on radical rabbis could force the rest of the deans to close ranks in support of the radicals.
Levanon told Ynet separately in an interview that the one injecting politics into the military was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who he said was trying to fend off Labor Party leadership challenges by sending troops to dismantle settlements. “I call on the [military’s] chief of staff to resist such corruption. Stop it with your own body. Stand with all the general staff and say, ‘We do not accept political orders’.”
Fifteen Knesset members from the Likud and parties to its right responded to the November 16 Nahshon Battalion incident by backing a bill that would forbid army participation in dismantling settlements, which it says is the job of the police. The bill prompted further divisions when two of the three lawmakers from the Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) Party, the remnant of the former National Religious Party’s moderate wing, refused to back it.
Further inflaming discord, the families of the two jailed Shimshon Battalion soldiers were feted on Saturday night, November 14, at a Farbrengen, a Hasidic post-Sabbath celebration, organized by Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, a Chabad-Lubavitch leader and head of the pro-settler SOS Israel organization. Joined by another Chabad leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh of the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva, and lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari of the far-right National Union party, Wolpe presented each of the families with a check for 20,000 shekels, or $5,300.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).