Religious Troops Torn Between Faith, Duty

TEL AVIV — There was a time when Captain Asaf Yemini, a religious officer in Israel’s elite Golani brigade, would have been a hero in the Gaza settlement of Gedid, where he grew up. But last Tuesday, friends and neighbors were calling him a traitor, as he stood with his unit, blocking anti-disengagement protesters from entering Gaza.

Yemini and his troops are stationed at the Kissufim border crossing, guarding against nightly assaults by protesters who try to infiltrate Gaza to join the opposition to withdrawal. Confrontations have been violent. In recent days fellow settlers even published his cell phone number, urging allies to send him instant messages telling him to disobey orders. Yemini has stood fast, but his personal plight has become a symbol of the rift between belief and duty that threatens to harm the Israeli military long after the evacuation.

As the August 15 start date for Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza approaches, every day brings new examples of the rapidly widening rift between right and left, religious and secular, those who see Israel as a divine promise fulfilled and those who wish it to be a liberal, peaceful nation among nations. Now, it seems, the debate finally has crossed the one line that everyone once vowed not to cross: the line preserving Israel’s military, the Jewish state’s ultimate protector and symbol of unity.

One of the major unifying symbols-turned-flashpoints in the current fray is the network of paramilitary religious seminaries known as Hesder yeshivas. Under a special arrangement going back decades, the Hesder program has allowed Orthodox youth to perform their military service in special all-Orthodox units where they can maintain strict religious observance and avoid secular influences. During the first year-and-a-half of their three-year compulsory service, their units perform regular military duties. The remaining 18 months are spent studying in a Hesder yeshiva. The program is loosely modeled on the historic Nahal Pioneering-Fighting Youth, a kibbutz-led corps that alternated stints of fighting and farming.

On the Israeli left, warnings have been sounded for years that the religious units were becoming a sort of army-within-the-army, in which deference to rabbis superseded obedience to military commanders.

Those warnings have echoed loudly in recent weeks, as the head rabbis of several Hesder yeshivas have openly called on their soldiers to refuse to obey orders to evacuate settlers, or at least to tell their commanders they can’t perform their duties. In turn, some officers, speaking anonymously, have urged that the Hesder units be dismantled.

Early this month, the military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, assured several Hesder deans that no such step would be taken.

The debate escalated last week, however, after two former chief rabbis of Israel, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, considered the senior spiritual mentors of the settler movement, jointly issued a psak halacha, or religious decree, forbidding Orthodox soldiers to enforce the military closure imposed on Gaza this month by Prime Minister Sharon. Their statements are now under investigation by the attorney general.

Fewer than 100 soldiers so far have openly joined the ranks of the “refuseniks,” as soldiers who refusing orders have come to be known. But the number of religious soldiers volunteering for command courses is starting to plummet, Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel reported this week. Harel quoted military sources who claimed that the decrease was temporary and that the numbers should climb after the disengagement, but no one can be certain.

For many of the Orthodox Zionists who make up the national-religious camp, Israel’s equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy, the voluntary decision by an Israeli government to evacuate Jewish settlements has shattered the very foundations of their religious worldview. The result is a mass religious crisis whose extent and direction cannot be foreseen.

Over the course of the past generation, national-religious youth have been catapulted into the role of national elite once occupied by kibbutzniks, thanks to their combination of religious fervor, military prowess and pioneering settler spirit. Hesder yeshivas and other Orthodox institutions have replaced the kibbutzim as a key breeding ground for elite army commanders, in numbers far beyond their share of the population. And, like the kibbutzniks before them, the national-religious youth have come to view their ideological worldview — in which the Torah, Land and State of Israel are a single, irreducible whole — as identical to the values of the state itself.

One-year preparation programs, originally intended to strengthen the religious beliefs of would-be soldiers before they enlist and face the hardship of maintaining a religious way of life while serving in the army, became de-facto pre-military academies. Their alumni volunteered for the best units, often continuing into military careers. One former commander of the elite Golani infantry brigade estimates that more than 60% of the officers in the storied unit are religious.

All this was shaken to the core when the army became the chief executer of the disengagement. Indeed, the political fault line in the current debate around the Gaza evacuation can be drawn, with an alarming degree of accuracy, between those who wear a yarmulke and those who don’t. Many observers point to the demographic makeup of anti-disengagement demonstrations, which consist almost entirely of Orthodox Jews. The army itself implicitly acknowledged the rift when it decided to keep Golani out of the actual evacuation of settlers — largely, sources say, because of its high ratio of religious officers.

Another source of tension is the special ultra-Orthodox unit known as Nahal Haredi. It was created three years ago as way to draw in some of the tens of thousands of youngsters from the ultra-Orthodox community — as distinct from the Modern Orthodox — who do not serve in the army at all. But instead of attracting ultra-Orthodox Jews, the unit has largely attracted radical settler youth, who admire its separatist ethos and rigorous religious standards.

This week, one left-wing Knesset member, Zehava Gal-On of the Meretz Party, called the Haredi unit “a ticking bomb” and called on Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to dismantle it. Her attack came after two members of the unit were charged with placing a dummy time bomb in Jerusalem’s central bus station in Jerusalem, forcing an evacuation and snarling traffic. The device was adorned with the words, “Disengagement will blow up in our faces.”

For now, the overwhelming majority of religious soldiers — like Asaf Yemini — are choosing to stay at their post and carry out their orders. No one dares to predict what the day after will look like.


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Religious Troops Torn Between Faith, Duty

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