/ articles for review

Religious Zionist soldiers must swear allegiance to army, State, or stay out of IDF

Religious Zionism must decide if commitment to holiness of Land of Israel overrides other concerns; if so, they must declare conscientious objection to serving in IDF


As Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government move forward in their conversations with the Palestinian Authority and attempt to build a foreign policy in sync with President Obama’s, our government and its operational arms, primarily the army, will, and increasingly are finding themselves at odds with certain segments of Israeli society, especially members of the settler community who live in Judea and Samaria, and, in particular, those from the religious national right.
The latter see territorial compromise, and in fact any act that doesn’t reinforce our claim to all the land of Israel, as a fundamental violation of the core principles of Jewish law and faith. Given the increased presence and prominence of religious Zionist soldiers and members of the religious right in the IDF, in particular in its elite units and junior officer corps, it is not self-evident anymore that the Israeli government will be able to utilize the army as a vehicle for implementing its policies. These fears existed during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, a fear that was not actualized, however, as the soldiers from the religious right stepped back from the abyss and chose to remain loyal to the military chain of command. Immediately after, however, their leadership issued statements to the effect that the acquiescence which they applied to Gaza would not be applied to Judea and Samaria.
Israel needs army without divisions (16/11/2009) by Donniel Hartman, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel
From the moment after the disengagement, beginning with Amona and continuing on a regular basis every time the army or the police are called upon to evacuate a house or illegal outpost, evidence of this growing tension is manifest. Increasingly the tension is not only between the army and the civilian settlers, but within the army itself, most recently when a group of religious right soldiers from the Shimshon brigade protested at an army event and declared their objection to the dismantlement of settlements. They were subsequently supported by a similar group from amongst the reservists from the same unit.
While political debate is both healthy and necessary in a vibrant democracy, it is also widely recognized that the army must be free from such debate, and must function and act in accordance with the instructions of the duly elected government of the State of Israel. This recognition, however, is breaking down. I believe the root of this change is not a result of the politicization of the army or the fact that the IDF as the army of the people, reflects the political schisms of Israeli society. Rather the breakdown is the result of the belief of the religious right that the future of Judea and Samaria is not a political issue, but a religious issue. Herein lays our challenge.
While Israel has a moderately sophisticated sense of the location and limits of where political debate is allowed, and a broad consensus that ensures that the army remains above it, there is no such tradition when it comes to religious issues. Israel has no separation of religion and state, nor does the army.
While the vast majority of Israelis want Judaism to have a role in the public life of Israeli society, there is a lack of sophistication and sensitivity when it comes to the distinction between one’s private beliefs and public policy and the need for religious pluralism within the public domain. For that reason, it is generally accepted that the beliefs of the religious must be the law for everyone on a whole array of issues, from personal status, marriage, and conversion, to selling hametz on Pesah.
This lack of sophistication is the necessary foundation for understanding the quagmire we find ourselves in when it comes to army’s role in implementing government policy regarding the future of Judea and Samaria. Once the conflict is defined in religious terms it enters into the gray area of state and religion. And those who do not distinguish in areas of religion between the private and public domain on issues such as personal status, Shabbat and the like have no cause nor the tools or inclination to make such a distinction when it comes to the holiness of the land.
A soldier may thus rationalize that if the army cannot command him to violate the Shabbat, and such a command is deemed illegal, it is even more evident to him that the army cannot command him to dismantle a settlement, as settling the land of Israel is deemed even more important than observance of Shabbat.
In fact, the lack of clear boundaries vis-a-vis the role of religion in our society is not confined to the state in general but is in fact built into the army itself with the institute of the army rabbinate. If the army rabbi’s role was merely and solely to monitor rules of kashrut and observance, and only to serve the ritual needs of the orthodox and traditional soldiers, it would already be problematic, for there is no other rabbinate for other soldiers.  But even letting that be, the rabbinate also sees its role as being involved in issues of education, and the teaching of values including, as we witnessed recently, the ethics of war in accordance with Jewish tradition.
I am not blaming the army rabbinate per se, for the face of the army is the face of the country. Israeli society at large must engage in a far more sophisticated discussion of the nature of religion in the state, and the distinctions between public and private practice and religious pluralism within a deeply ideologically divided Israeli society. Such a discussion will then invariably lead to greater clarity as to the role of religion within the army. This discussion, however, will take many years, and at least when it comes to the functioning of the army in the near future, that is time we do not have.
I therefore suggest the following practical direction: not only must the army be free from pursuing internal political debates, so too it must be free from any religious discourse outside of the private ritual practices of its soldiers. Every soldier must be told upfront and recognize that he or she must follow unquestioningly the orders of the civilian government of Israel and the laws that it enacts, and the military chain of command so long as those laws are legal.
Anyone serving in the army must swear allegiance to this principle. If they cannot, then they must be designated as conscientious objectors who are not allowed to serve. Religious Zionism and religious communities have thus a critical decision to make: If they believe that their commitment to the holiness of the Land of Israel is so central that it must override all other concerns and that the State has value only to the extent that it brings more Jews to live in more of the land of Israel, then they must declare up front their conscientious objection to serving in the army, and go the path of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews.
If members of the religious Zionist community, however, want to remain within the Zionist camp, then they must declare in a clear and unambiguous statement its obligation to obey the laws and orders of the government and the State of Israel during their army service. The community must begin to educate its population to this end and to the belief in the value of the State of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state, and that the land of Israel is subservient to the interests of the State and the people. 
The State of Israel needs an army that is not only above the political divisions within Israel, but is above its religious rifts as well. Anything less is a danger to Israel as a democracy and a danger to the future of the State of Israel.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics