Israeli military struggles with rising influence of Religious-Zionists
Nowhere is the growing clout and reach of religious nationalists in Israel more apparent than in its military. Some have begun to push back.
JERUSALEM – On a searing night in July 2014, Israeli troops gathered on the border with Gaza to prepare for war. Hamas militants had been firing rockets into Israel for days, and Israeli warplanes had begun bombing the Palestinian territory.
The orders for the Givati brigade, an elite infantry unit, came in a typed, single-page letter. “History has chosen us to spearhead the fight against the terrorist Gazan enemy who curses, vilifies and abominates Israel’s God,” Colonel Ofer Winter, the unit’s commanding officer, wrote in the letter to his troops. He ended with a biblical quote promising divine protection for Israel’s warriors on the battlefield.
The letter quickly circulated on social media and from there to the press. Secular Israelis condemned it, saying it broke a decades-old convention that kept religion out of military missions.
Two years on, the letter remains a symbol of a profound shift within Israeli society: the rising power and reach of religious nationalists. The change has set up a battle for the type of country Israel should be, a battle between the country’s liberals and its more religious nationalist camp.
In its early years, Israel’s two main centres of power – the military and the government – were dominated by the secular and mostly left-wing elite who had founded the state in 1948. But over the past decade or so a new generation of leaders that combines religion and nationalism has emerged.
Religious-Zionism differs from secular Zionism in its historical perspective and messianic undertones. For Religious-Zionists, caring for places like Jewish settlements in the West Bank – the biblical bedrock of Judaism, but also claimed by Palestinians as their home – is a way of fulfilling a religious obligation and building the Jewish state.
The community, sometimes referred to as the ‘national religious’, has increased its presence in both government and the civil service. This year, for the first time ever, the heads of the national police, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet domestic security service are all Religious-Zionists.
Nowhere, though, has the shift been more pronounced than in the military. Most soldiers in the Israeli army are secular or observant Jews, though Druze and Bedouin Arab citizens serve as well. But over the past two decades, academic studies show, the number of Religious-Zionist officers in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has seen a huge increase. The military has also felt the growing influence of rabbis who have introduced matters of faith and politics to the battlefield.
Some politicians and military leaders have begun to push back.
In January, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot announced he would remove a 15-year-old unit dedicated to “Jewish Awareness” from the military rabbinate – the department in charge of providing religious services within the ranks. The Jewish Awareness Branch has periodically drawn criticism from both inside and outside the military for pushing an ideological, right-wing and religious agenda. Some secular Israelis worry that too much religion in the military may lead to soldiers questioning who they should obey: their officer or God.
In a letter sent to IDF officers and published by the army, Eisenkot staked out the Israeli Defence Force’s position: A military divided over politics and religion can hardly fulfill its mission. “The IDF is the people’s army and includes a wide spectrum of Israeli society,” he wrote.