IDF Risks Becoming 'Holy Army' if Ultra-Orthodox Forced to Serve

Article Summary
The debate over mandatory army service for the ultra-orthodox in Israel rages on. While many argue it is the best way to integrate the group into society and the work force, Yigal Sarna says that it will only serve to place restrictions on the army. The IDF risks becoming an army void of women and guided by rabbinical authorities.

The Word and the Sword, this is the idiom that stuck at the time to then-military chaplain Major Yehuda Shobin. Journalists and columnists who, in those hopeful, early days of the State of Israel, were captured by the magic of the metaphor that has its origins in ancient Jewish rabbinic literature, used to write at length about the ultra-orthodox rabbi who had taken off the traditional rabbinical attire and substituted it for the uniform of an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). (Israeli novelist Haim Be'er described the metamorphosis Shobin had undergone in his book Et ha-Zamir or The Time of Trimming.)

Visiting the IDF recruitment and induction center [last] week, I noticed, walking along the induction route, watching the new recruits as they pass through the draft process, that about half of the those soldiers serving at the 12 induction stations, where the recruits are photographed and medically checked and get their immunity shots [and uniform etc.], are  women soldiers. They are the ones who take a snapshot of the soldier's mouth cavity, hold his arm when he gets his shot and even wait nearby at the logistics depot when he sheds his civilian outfit, like a fledgling hatching from its egg, and puts on his uniform. On days when ultra-orthodox recruits arrive on the scene, all women soldiers disappear — so I have been told. The induction process is transformed into a purely male system.

"We are heading to becoming a holy army," [sociologist and Open University of Israel Associate] Professor Yagil Levy told me recently.

Even now, at the height of the vigorous campaign for the enlistment of ultra-orthodox Jews to military service, Levy is more concerned over the possibility of their enlistment to service than over their likely exemption from service. However, before delving any deeper into his rationale, I would like to note in passing that, as for me, I [too] oppose the campaign for mandatory conscription of ultra-orthodox Jews, although for different reasons.

As an ardent supporter of the social justice protest, which has come out against the looting [of the public] and the undermining of mutual solidarity [in Israeli society], I believe that waving the flag of mandatory draft for all, including the ultra-orthodox [in the name of equal sharing of the burden], as if it were the major issue at the heart of the inequality debate, is tantamount to taking one single piece of a one-thousand-piece puzzle and presenting it as if it were the whole picture.

The ultra-orthodox community has customarily been the foe — an easy to hate black-clad mass. And the well-publicized PR campaign for their enlistment to military service is conveniently used by the tycoons and plunderers [of the public coffers] as an irrelevant bogus protest aimed at diverting attention from the real issue on the agenda — the social justice protest. As a matter of fact, the IDF itself has serious reservations about the recruitment of tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox soldiers, who have no adequate education in the core subjects, who rank too low on the army's quality group measure to be of any use, who lack any motivation to serve and are bound to enlist contrary to their will. Just imagine them, running around with automatic guns and shoulder missiles in all-male units. God forbid!

We would rather do without such an army of God. All we ask of them is that they, ultra-orthodox men and women alike, join the labor market and start earning a living and sharing the burden.

Professor Levy, who is far better acquainted than me with the IDF's needs and considerations, warns that the enlistment of the ultra-orthodox into the army will pave the way to legitimizing a purely male military environment, where women will have no foothold. What's more, it will grant the ultra-orthodox rabbinical colleges a considerable bargaining capacity and give rise, in the course of time, to a pragmatic ultra-orthodox trend that will seek to influence the character of the entire army. Such an extremist religious trend will vie with the national religious trend for hegemony and strive to create a "holy" army with chaste women, arrangements for keeping the ultra-orthodox strict  Jewish dietary laws [even more so than the current strict Kosher rules prescribing permitted and forbidden food] and a dominant [military] rabbinate.

Foreign Experts Taken Aback

Yagil Levy, who is currently on a sabbatical at Georgetown University, is a creative researcher of the intersection of army and society, much sought after abroad, familiar with the IDF's inner workings, with close contacts in the military but, at the same time, removed enough to retain his independence. He is an Associate Professor at the Open University of Israel and enjoys complete academic freedom, so that he can say everything that is on his mind.

He was born 54 years ago in Tel Aviv and retired from the army as lieutenant colonel, having served in the IDF General Staff Operations Division. His acquaintance with the goings-on behind the scenes of the military prompted him to delve deeper into this sphere of research. Levy is talking today about an army that is already engaged in the confrontation between two conflicting political cultures — the secular, liberal culture and the religious one — existing on opposite sides of the Green Line and incapable of bridging the gap dividing them and reaching an agreement, any agreement.

Levy says that from the 1990's on, it seems that, the IDF has become increasingly liberal, that it has learned to recognize and accept cultural differences, that it has opened up and opened military field jobs to women. However, along with growing liberalism and openness, the make-up of the army has changed as the influence of the secular middle class in the field units and the command echelons has gradually declined, giving way to peripheral populations of Russian immigrants, Sephardic Jews [of Middle Eastern origin] and settlers. These segments of society that has advanced in the army, thanks to the army's openness, is now seeking to reverse directions and back off from this trend of newly found liberalism.

"If more ultra-orthodox Jews are enlisted into the army," Levy told me from the United States, "this process of change will be stepped up. In any event, the liberalism that flourished in the army [in the past two decades] is quickly fading away, since the liberal camp is less and less present there and its agenda is, by its very nature, less crystallized and less militant. The scales thus tip in favor of the ever-strengthening religious trends in the military that are going to give rise to the 'holy army.'"

"It will be an army whose command echelons are becoming ever more religious and ever less reluctant to dispute the political echelon when it comes to issues like future withdrawal from territories. The command echelons of battalion commanders and higher up the ladder, where the settlers have significant representation, is bound to go public when the time comes and flaunt its real political agenda, which it currently does not feel strong enough to do.

"Any confrontation between the political and military echelons along the lines of the Barak-Ashkenazi conflict [the bitter feud between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and IDF former Chief of Staff Lieutenant General (res.) Ashkenazi] seen so far will pale next to the chasm liable to subsequently open up."

Levy is not referring to the current state of affairs in the military, the heritage of the past, where the army is still secular and is still acting as a restraining element, for instance, with respect to the Iranian issue, vis-à-vis the trigger-happy political echelon. This restrain will disappear in the future.

Last week Yagil Levy addressed an international conference in Slovenia, talking on the increasingly theocratic nature of the IDF. The audience included military researchers from all over Europe, some of them from military academies. "I told them about the extent to which the rabbis [i.e., the Jewish religious establishment in Israel] had penetrated the military and they were taken aback." The IDF is still perceived as a predominantly secular army. "The drive for the exclusion of women in the military is currently initiated and pushed by the fanatical religious conservatism of the lower echelons. And the IDF General Staff has no interest in confrontation with the lower field echelons. In fact, it has no well-defined liberal agenda [to fall back on], just long-accustomed practices."

Levy envisions a future army that will operate under the dictum of religious rulings as well, an army that will exact a much higher price from the enemy and, at the same time, will be ready to sacrifice much more, in return for being allowed to launch a significant military operation as it deems fit.

Exclusion of the Druze and Russian Jews

"We are in the midst of a cultural war, which is manifest [at present] in the relations between men and women; however, the exclusion of women [from the public space] will inevitably spread to other sectors that will be similarly excluded: Religious soldiers will refuse to sit together with Druze soldiers or even with soldiers of Russian origin whose Jewish alliance has not been verified beyond any doubt."

Levy believes that in case the ultra-orthodox are indeed enlisted in the army in growing numbers, the women-free frameworks will increase in proportion. National-religious soldiers will join the ultra-orthodox battalions, as they will better guarantee chastity. And in due course the ultra-orthodox will formulate an ultra-orthodox religious agenda with reference to the army and shape the army in light of their doctrine and in their own image, with an influential military rabbinate and religious indoctrination forced on secular soldiers. The IDF military missions will be subordinate to religious considerations as well [along with the military ones], and the involvement of women will gradually diminish until its total disappearance."

All these concern the future. However, even at the present time, when about 1,000 paratroopers were taking part in a parachuting exercise last January, it was made quite clear to the female parachuting instructors that, should a religious paratrooper request it, they would have to refer him to a male instructor at another door of the plane so that — God forbid — no girl would touch his shoulder to propel him out of the plane. The army of God is already here.

Post Scriptum:

It was a weird week, an Orwellian week, really. It has transpired that there is no occupation [of any territories] and never has been, and that the outposts are utterly legitimate [as stated in the "outposts report" released this week by d “outpost committee,” appointed by the Israeli government to investigate the legal status of unauthorized West Bank Jewish outposts, and calling in conclusion for their legalization]. [Former PM] Ehud Olmert is a saint [having been acquitted by the court on two charges of corruption, while convicted of breach of trust]. [The state prosecutor who brought the charges against Olmert, Moshe] Lador is a felon. And [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu is surprisingly all for mandatory conscription of the ultra-orthodox [having zigzagged on the issue, unable to make up his mind].

I can only wonder what next week has in store for us: [Head of the Labor party] Shelly [Yachimovitz] is climbing in the polls? [Israeli President, veteran politician Shimon] Peres retiring at long last? [Head of the ultra-orthodox Shas party and Minister of Internal Affairs, who is driving the campaign against African refugee migrants to Israel] Eli Yishai is adopting a Sudanese orphan?

Found in: women, ultra-orthodox, liberal, draft, culture war, agenda, yagil levi, theocracy, russians, orthodox, military, jewish, israel, idf, druze

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