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Israel

Is The Israeli Army Becoming Too Religious?

A new study shows ever more devout Jews are joining the Israeli military, and some wonder if the situation has reached a tipping point that could further push an already edgy region toward a religion-fueled showdown.

Israeli soldiers pray at the Wailing Wall (Flickmor)
Israeli soldiers pray at the Wailing Wall (Flickmor)
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM - It's a cultural revolution, an insidious mutation that may soon become irreversible. It revolves around a central question about the Israeli army, a cornerstone of the creation of the Jewish state. Is this melting-pot of the world's diaspora still the "army of the people?" Or has it instead become a religious army?

It's a crucial question, because if a significant number of Zahal unit commanders and soldiers are wearing yarmulkes, they aren't going to be in any hurry the day they're ordered to evacuate religious settlers established on territory that will be part of a future Palestinian state. Their loyalties could well be torn between military discipline and the commandments of a militaristic rabbinate.

This is probably pure hypothesis because the Israeli government has no intention of repeating a West Bank operation such as it carried out in August 2005, when some 8,000 Jewish colonists were evacuated from the Gaza Strip. Regardless: the question of settlements lies at the heart of the international community's demands for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The phenomenon of ever greater religiosity in the defense forces is already established: 35 to 40% of those enlisted, as well as infantry officers in the Israeli army are religious. So are 30% of those in combat units. These latest statistics come from Professor Yagil Levy, a well-known expert on the nexus between the Israeli military and Israeli society, at the Open University Israel. "It's a tendency that just keeps growing," Levy explains. "Most of the commanders of the Golani brigade a prestigious infantry brigade are religious Jews. And it's too late to go back now."

Professor Levy thinks it's time to sound the alarm about the potential consequences of this trend. And he's not the only one. In June, General Avi Zamir, outgoing head of the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF) Human Resources Directorate, sent an appeal to IDF Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz, calling for the curbing of religious radicalization and preservation of the "people's army" model.

Zamir's report came after a study by sociologist Dr. Neri Horowitz, who wrote that in the strict application of "appropriate integration" (a code of conduct to prevent the intermingling of orthodox Jewish male soldiers and women soldiers) the women are relegated to subordinate positions, suggesting "extreme religious coercion."

By all appearances, Israel's military is a well-oiled machine – except when a rash of media reports reveal that it is riddled with contradiction and antagonism. In early September, for example, four student officers were banned from their schools for having refused to listen to a choir that was partially female. All were what is known as "National Religious' Israelis, as is 41% of the military overall.

A bitter battle between non-religious and religious Israelis took place last June over a prayer recited at funerals. Military rabbis had slowly but surely replaced the phrase "May the people of Israel remember..." by "May God remember..." It required the intervention of the Chief of Staff to put back the words "people of Israel," where they remain at least for the time being.

Zahal, as the IDF is also known, is not on the verge of revolt, but images of the rebels in the Shimshon Battalion, who, in 2009, demonstrated in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to communicate their refusal to evacuate an illegal colony, live on. How did things get this far? Professor Levy explains that after so many conflicts, Israel's military suffered from a lack of motivation on the part of young people, who were increasingly reticent at the idea of being conscripted for three years (two for women).

Ducking the draft

Mandatory military service is still the rule in Israel, but there are a number of ways to avoid it, particularly for religious Jews. Today, 25% of young male Jews of military service age manage to avoid it. For girls, the figure is 50%. A sort of historic compromise has been struck between the military and the National Religious Party. The military needed a new "reservoir" of soldiers, while the party realized that their mistrust of the military was no longer to their advantage – not only because it would mean further marginalization, but because they could also attain positions of power within the military. So they applied the well-known strategy of "entryism," the idea being that the rabbis would increase their influence by spreading out among the units, constituting a sort of parallel hierarchy in many areas.

The IDF today is a bubbling mix of cultures. National Religious members confront ultra-orthodox, non-religious Jews face the on-going march of religious radicals, and women soldiers are subject to the segregation imposed by rabbis, whose code of "modesty" they find constraining.

In many respects, the evolution of the defense forces mirrors that of Israeli society as a whole, which is more and more dominated by religious conservatism. Some find reassurance in the fact that a more hedonist Tel Aviv and the militant religiosity of Jerusalem have nothing in common.

And the politicians aren't afraid of playing with fire. "Benjamin Netanyahu," states Mikhail Manekin of a NGO called Breaking the Silence, "is a past master at the art of telling the international community: ‘Surely you can understand that, in view of the parties that support me and the evolution of the Israeli army, I can't stop the settlements. Nor can I evacuate settlers.""

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - Flickmor

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