Beware the Military-Religious Complex

Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi stood at a lectern last week wearing the kind of size XXL skullcap that is the social marker of Orthodox settlers, praising an army program that is the pride of Israel's religious right. He looked slightly bashful. Ashkenazi, Israel's military chief of staff, lives in a rather boring suburb of Tel Aviv, not a West Bank settlement. He's not an Orthodox Jew, so he usually doesn't wear a hat or skullcap, except for formal occasions when he puts on his military beret. As a military man, he's officially not a politician. Then again, you don't get appointed to head the Israel Defense Forces without a sharp sense of which way the political winds are blowing.

Before I get into the details, let me note several implications of this incident. It demonstrates, yet again, that when politicians create an alliance between the state and a religious movement, the outcome is lose-lose for both. In the strictly Israeli context, it shows the growing dependence of the army on soldiers and officers from the Orthodox right, whose commitment to implementing democratic decisions is a touch iffy. And a major reason for that dependency (I know this is a terrible surprise) is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

The bashful general was speaking at a cornerstone-laying ceremony for what's known as a hesder yeshivah. A yeshivah is a place where people (well, usually men) study Talmud and other Jewish religious texts. Hesder means "arrangement." The arrangement was born in the mid-1960s, when the Israeli army let students at one yeshivah alternate between stretches of active duty and periods of religious study. While in yeshivah, they were available for immediate call-up. Hesder soldiers had to commit themselves to extra time in the combined program but spent fewer months in active service than other conscripts.

Hesder yeshivot were a compromise designed for religious Zionists, the part of the Orthodox community that supports the existence of a Jewish state (unlike the ultra-Orthodox, who see Zionism as a secular substitute for Judaism and generally exploit loopholes to avoid the universal draft). In a country where combat duty was a key to social status and the secular left dominated the army, the arrangement allowed young Orthodox men to serve in their own companies (later platoons) and avoid social pressure to give up religion. It also let them get in some religious study. The army got a few more combat soldiers with high motivation. It seemed like a safe, small-scale deal.

The arrangement mushroomed after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The feeling of having experienced a miracle had a mind-altering effect on much of the religious Zionist community. As part of a religious revival, the ideas of the old secular right -- territorial expansion, national honor, military power as a value in itself -- got dressed up as theology. More men wanted to combine combat service and religious study. Besides seeing the hesder yeshivot as a source of good soldiers, the government used new yeshivot as one more way of creating an Israeli presence in occupied territory. The teachers were largely advocates of the new ultra-nationalist theology. Without paying any attention, the government was feeding a new, ethically challenged form of Judaism.

By the 1980s, the Israeli army was undergoing a transformation. Israeli society doesn't have an ideal of the rugged individual. The core ideal is the rugged group and serving the collective good, to an extent that is difficult to translate into American English. For years, the military was the outlet for that ideal. But the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and endless duty policing the occupied territories eroded secular Israelis' enthusiasm for combat duty and becoming officers. Orthodox soldiers, including hesder students, filled the gap. But in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the army had to avoid using infantry brigades with large numbers of religious soldiers. The brass did not want to test whether they'd follow orders to evacuate settlers, especially after some prominent heads of hesder yeshivot proclaimed that it was a sin to do so.

Despite that near-mutiny experience, the army hasn't changed its connection to the yeshivot or its reliance on the religious right. The IDF spokesperson's office told me this week that the army's only limit on how many hesder soldiers it takes is that they have to come from approved yeshivot. He didn't mention that the number of approved institutions keeps growing.

Last week, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv leaked comments that the commander of the Paratroops Brigade made on a couple of recent occasions about the arrangement. "I hate it," Col. Aharon Haliva said. "I don't think it is ethical." Haliva's complaint was that hesder soldiers actually spend a lot less time in uniform than other soldiers do. Haliva is hardly the only top officer to feel this way, but he opens his mouth. Actually, Ma'ariv's military commentator Ofer Shelah faulted him for not saying enough. Haliva didn't mention that the hesder platoons have become "special-needs units," a nice way of saying "a total pain."

In recent years, for instance, cultural attitudes on the religious right have grown more extreme, especially about gender issues and sexuality. Hesder soldiers, in turn, have become more demanding about not serving with women -- just as the army is trying to open more roles to women soldiers.

Haliva upset the hesder soldiers and their political patrons, including Knesset members who are part of the ruling coalition. Ashkenazi had to smooth things over. At the cornerstone ceremony, wearing his oversized skullcap as he spoke to an audience of hesder students, he praised their dedication. "In the name of the entire army, I want to say 'thank you' to you," he declared.

Actually, Haliva's complaint was tactical and missed the strategic issues. There's a vicious cycle at work. Israel continues to hold the West Bank and build settlements. Policing occupied territory and protecting settlers are military burdens, increasing the need for combat soldiers and officers who aren't ambivalent about the job. To meet that need, the army depends ever more on the religious right. Yet this increases the danger of a breakdown in the military when an Israeli government finally does decide to pull out of the West Bank. Large numbers of soldiers, including officers, could refuse to take part. Politicians don't like to talk about this, but it adds one more reason for them to postpone tough decisions.

There are two necessary responses to this problem. One is to phase out the arrangement. It hurts the army's internal cohesion and creates doubts about the military's ability to carry out government decisions. It's awful for Judaism: Tying religious institutions to the army makes them responsible for instilling a militarist spirit that distorts Jewish tradition.

The second response is to end the occupation sooner rather than later, before an extreme political camp gains even more influence in the military. Yes, I know. Pretty much everything about Israeli policy comes down to ending the occupation. I'd like to think that Ashkenazi looked embarrassed because he knew what he should have said and was afraid to say it.

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