Religious soldiers are replacing kibbutzniks. Does it matter?
Is the IDF the most moral army in the world, as many claim? There must be doubts. Breaking the Silence, a group of reservists who bear witness to what they have seen and had to do while in uniform, tell many disturbing stories, from the petty humiliation of Palestinians to actions that might count as war crimes.
ARMY INDUCTION DAY feels like a graduation party. Family and friends gather. The kids leave home to become the defenders of the Jewish state. The gun is passed from father to son. On the day the paratroopers are being signed up at Bakum, the main recruitment centre of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), young men dance in a circle to the beat of a drum, singing “Don’t be afraid, Israel.” All in the cheerful band wear the knitted skullcaps of the national-religious movement, having studied at a religious military academy in the settlement of Eli.
Religious Zionists have largely taken over the ideological fire of the secular kibbutz movement, which built socialist collective farms in the early years of the state. Now it is the boys from the yeshivas (Jewish seminaries) who seek to settle the land and become army officers. If the army is a microcosm of Israeli society, then its top units may be the harbingers of Israel’s future elite. The paratroopers form a sort of military aristocracy. Eight of the 15 IDF chiefs of staff since 1967 have worn the red beret and boots, and several became prominent politicians.
National-religious Jews, who account for about 10% of the population, make up about 40% of junior and mid-level infantry officers. Many secular Israelis worry that, through this group, religious settlers will take over the army. “They are very devoted. They are great soldiers, ready to sacrifice. But they bring a certain ambiguity about who is the final source of authority,” says Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and one-time prime minister.
The evidence so far is ambiguous. The army’s removal of settlers from Gaza, and latterly from outposts in the West Bank, has passed off with few instances of insubordination. Moreover, the network of hesder yeshivas (which mix religious studies with military service) and religious pre-service military academies is often intended less to create a new national-religious elite than to keep youngsters from leaving religious life.