Increasingly religious Israeli Army has some concerned about cohesion

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Students study in the main hall at the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank. (Photo by Matthew Bell.)

Israel has charged five radical Jewish settlers with crimes against Israel’s military.

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The men are accused of organizing vandalism against an Israeli army base in the occupied West Bank. They are charged with tracking Israeli military movements in order to thwart actions against Jewish settlements. There are also allegations that sensitive information on Israeli troop movements came from active duty soldiers. It's deeply troubling information that shines a light on a trend in the Israeli military.

It used to be that the bulk of Israel’s army officers – especially those from elite combat units – came from Israel’s largely secular kibbutz movement. After all, a soldier’s life can be incompatible with Orthodox Judaism’s strict rules on diet, prayer and study. But times have changed.

In the main study hall at the Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva, located in a Jewish settlement southeast of Jerusalem, pairs of young men are hunched over religious books, debating in the traditional style of Jewish learning. Essentially, this is a way for observant young Israelis – mostly men, but some women as well – to combine religious study with mandatory army service.

“Even though it’s a Jewish army, it’s not necessarily a religious army,” said Greg Bank, 24, a South African-born Israeli.

He did two years at the yeshiva, then two years in the army, and he is completing his final year of religious study.

“It can be difficult some times, because of the nature of the army, the environment’s a very physical environment, sometimes you can forget about your more spiritual side,” he said.

There can be inherent conflicts between the rabbis, who are leaders of the faithful, and the army commanders, leaders of the soldiers.

“Thank goodness I haven’t been put in that situation,” he said. “But you’ve got to look at the picture holistically, because it’s very nice saying that we want every bit of land and that every bit of land is important to us, but if we don’t have an army that can defend this land, then everything will fall apart.”

In other words, soldiers must obey orders for the good of the country. But there are some hard-line, pro-settler rabbis who see things quite differently. For them, giving up any amount of Biblical Israel is heresy. These rabbis have encouraged young Israelis to serve, but also to refuse orders that contradict Jewish law, like orders to evacuate Jewish settlements.

One of the leading rabbis of the Har Etzion yeshiva, Mosheh Lichtenstein said such extreme views are not widespread. But he said there is inherent tension for his students between religious and military obligations.

“The military says, ‘let’s solve problems by force,’ and religion says, ‘let’s solve them by creating a harmonious and perfect society,’” Lichtenstein said. “So on one level, we want our students to feel the tension and be aware of that. We tell them, they go to the army, not because it’s a good idea, but because it’s a necessity.”

These tensions have flared up in recent weeks and months. Some Israeli men in uniform have objected on religious grounds to female singers at official military ceremonies. Last week, the military ruled that women cannot be prohibited from singing.

It also put in place new requirements for rabbis when addressing groups of student soldiers. The rabbis will have to clear such meetings ahead of time with the military rabbinate, and they will also be accompanied by a military minder. The new rules suggest the army brass is truly concerned about the impact of increasing religiosity within its ranks.

“Nobody at the top of the army has discussed this publicly,” said Gershom Gorenberg, author of “The Unmaking of Israel”. “So, we’re guessing here.”

If an order came down for a large scale evacuation of West Bank settlements, Gorenberg said he doubts massive numbers of Israeli soldiers would refuse those orders. But he said that is precisely the scenario that opponents of the two-state solution are trying to put in the public spotlight.

There are “rabbis and other ideologues who are publicizing this issue,” Gorenberg said. And these individuals are, “trying to create a deterrent against an evacuation by raising the question of the internal cohesion of the army in that case.”

Children enjoyed some playtime during a recent evening at the West Bank settlement of Migron, outside of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Approximately 300 residents here are facing eviction, because an Israeli court determined the settlement is illegal and should be dismantled in the coming months.

Community spokesman Itai Chamo, holding his toddler in his arms, said he is not sure if Israeli soldiers would refuse evacuation orders. But he said, “the army is with us.”

“I do my reserves. I do 40 days a year. The military is me, not anyone else,” Chamo said.

He said he has never received such an order himseld and he said he is not worried about getting one anytime soon.

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