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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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