In The Name Of Yahweh: The Theocratization Of The IDF
“God [is] the commander in chief (…) Contrary to the popular discourse, it’s not only that the Israeli army is becoming more and more religious; according to the expert on civil-military relations, the IDF is undergoing a speedy process of theocratization.”
I-24 NEWS – As Israeli army becomes more religious in its make up, experts say it’s undergoing process of theocratization
The word “divine” in the English version of Prof. Yagil Levy’s newest book –“The Divine commander of the Israeli Military” – is not an adjective to describe the fine qualities of an exceptional Israeli military officer. Levy means literary “divine”, as in God. It is God as the commander in chief. His main claim is that contrary to the popular discourse, it’s not only that the Israeli army is becoming more and more religious; according to the expert on civil-military relations, the IDF is undergoing a speedy process of theocratization.
The most obvious manifestation of this process, according to him, is a gradual penetration of religious authorities into the army in an attempt to influence conduct previously subordinated to military authorities only.
The army, in desperate need of the pool of national religious movement recruits, has adjusted itself to the situation. The old elites – secular, leftist, affiliated with the Labor party – out; the soldiers from the new – religious, right wing oriented elites – in.
Just two weeks ago, new military nominations made headlines. Two high-ranking officers were nominated Division Commanders, both of them religious. This biographical fact has not gone unnoticed both by the general, secular media, and by the sectarian, religious websites.
Reactions from the left sounded again like a warning; the right responded with pride. The most popular national-religious website named it “the knitted nominations in the IDF” – referring to the knitted head cover of this sector, as opposed to the black skullcap of the ultra-Orthodox or the bare secular head.
The two join a growing number of religious people to hold senior security positions, including the new Police Chief (a former deputy head of the Shin Bet), the new head of the Mossad, and so forth.
Just three years ago, an observant visitor to a special event organized for families in one of the military divisions noticed that the tables occupied by the families of the highest officers were exclusively secular old elites; at other tables, 70 percent of the invitees were religious, mainly from the settlements on the West Bank. Had he attended a similar event today, the proportion would have been very different.
Eli Sadan, a leading Rabbi in Israel’s religious national circles and “father” of the military’s religious preparatory schools (Yeshivas), recently remarked: “the army should not become a phalanx of religious soldiers only.” The yeshivas he established under the title “it’s our turn to assume responsibility for the country” are the hothouse of most religious soldiers in combat units.
This process of change is not utterly new. In fact, it started as early as 1973. After the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, the army, until then a sacred cow, lost some of its status in Israeli society. Old elites, mainly members of the kibbutz movement, started looking for alternative gratification.
Then came 1977, when Likud first came to power, and disgruntled old elites deserted their old strongholds for newer careers. Into that vacuum stepped new elites, mostly from the national religious camp and the settlers, for whom military service is a mission and a vehicle for social mobility at the same time.
Israeli society, divided on every issue, has been torn apart by this phenomenon as well. The liberal center-left is alarmed by the rapid adjustments the army makes to absorb religious soldiers it desperately needs and provides them with accommodating physical and spiritual conditions like separate swimming pools for men and women or even not matching a religious pilot with a female companion in the same cockpit.
Most disturbing is the growing influence rabbis have on military camps and conduct. The key question is who has more authority over soldiers: Their commanders or their Rabbis? What will happen in the event of another evacuation of settlements like the one in Gaza? Who will those soldiers obey?
Prof. Levy wholeheartedly believes that the process of theocratization is exactly that: a strategic stage to be better prepared, based on the failure to prevent disengagement from Gaza. Others are terrified by what they see as a potential threat of Messianic religious wars imposed by a religious army on the political system.
Prof. Udi Lebel, head of the Sociology Department at the University of Ariel thinks the reaction and fear of the religious sector is over-exaggerated. He believes the impact of the growing number of religious soldiers and officers is more part of the Jewish-Militaristic discourse in a changing IDF, and does not constitute a real change in a rather mild predominant doctrine. In other words – talk tough in the name of God, fight carefully and within the rather narrow constraints of post-modern discourse of human rights of the enemy.
Even before anybody can predict exactly how this story is going to unfold, one thing can be said for sure: since the army has always been the main resource pool for the Israeli political system – what happens in the army does not stay in the army.
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