[There is so much wrong with this piece, I decided to pull an Augean Stables.]
A religious war within the Israeli Army
By Ethan Bronner
Sunday, March 22, 2009
JERUSALEM: The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the recent Gaza fighting highlights a debate here about the rules of war. But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.
[Comment: The ceredibility of these charges has since been seriously impugned and they are, in any event, extremely distorted. See here.]
Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, "the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war."
[Comment: The quote is second hand, therefore, suspect. Even if accurate, though, Ram obviously did not understand that מלחמת מצוה does not mean jihad. It refers to a war to defend Jews from attack or to conquer the land of Israel. The booklets do not stress the latter, only the former. Furthermore, since when is it bad to believe in God, in His Providence or in His promise of the Land of Israel to the People of Israel?]
Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.
"If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?" he said. "To whom do we complain?"
[Comment: Danny Zamir is a radical Leftist, who goes around the world preaching that Israel is a racist, apartheid state. See here. Notice the unctious rhetoric he employs in describing the IDF rabbis and religious soldiers. The man's agenda is anti-religion, period.]
For the first four decades of Israel's existence, the army — like many of the country's institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two, religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military responsibility. (In Israeli society, they are a growing force, distinct from, and more modern than, the black-garbed ultra-Orthodox, who are excused from military service.)
[Comment: One might think there had been a putsch or a purge of secular soldiers. The truth is: a) secular families have few or no children b) the percentage of secular Israeli emigres is very high c) the percentage of secular Israeli kids who dodge or avoid army service is the highest in the country (after Haredim and Arabs, who don't give lip service to Zionism) d) The Kibbutzim have gone bankrupt, both fiscally and ideologically. Finally, the country has, for almost twenty years, been in the midst of a renewal of Jewish identity and the consequent decline in doctrinnaire secularism. The morale building materials distributed by the IDF Rabbinate were snapped up by huge numbers of soldiers, both religious and so-called secular.]
In many cases, the religious nationalists have ascended to command positions from precisely the kind of premilitary college course that Mr. Zamir runs — but theirs are run by the religious movements rather than his secular one, meaning that the competition between him and them is both ideological and careerist.
[Comment: So, if you serve in the army and perform your duties, you should not be promoted. Unless, of course, you pass Zamir's thought police.]
"The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious rightist graduates of the preparatory academies," noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically liberal. "The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli society through the army."
For Mr. Halbertal, like for the vast majority of Israelis, the army is an especially sensitive institution because it has always functioned as a social cauldron, throwing together people from all walks of life and scores of ethnic and national backgrounds, and helping form them into a cohesive society with social networks that carry on throughout their lives.
[Comment: It is true that the religious community is increasingly involved in career army service. It is also true that religious soldiers are highly prized and contested over by commanders. The way this comment is framed further demonizes and distorts the highly nuanced and multi-variegated political and religious positions within the Religious Zionist community. The implication of the end of the paragraph is that the army is aimed at homogenizing Israeli society, and that's just not the case. Of course, if all the religious soldiers came out non-religious leftists, that would be fine, in their not so humble opinion.]
Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military's chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field.
He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: "He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful." A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.
[Comment: See my previous posting.]
At the time, in January, Avshalom Vilan, then a leftist member of Parliament, accused the rabbi of having "turned the Israeli military's activity from fighting out of necessity into a holy war."
Immediately after Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 and then from several West Bank settlements, there was a call to disband certain religious programs in the army because some soldiers in them said they would refuse to obey future orders to disband settlements. After the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the increase in rocket attacks on Israel, that discussion died down.
But Yaron Ezrahi, a leftist political scientist at Hebrew University who has been lecturing to military commanders, said that the call to close those programs should now be revived because what was evident in Gaza was that the humanistic tradition from which a code of ethics is derived was not being sufficiently observed there.
The dispute over control of the army is not only ideological. It is also personal, as all politics is in this small, intimate country. Those who disagree with the chief rabbi have vilified him. Those who are unhappy with what Mr. Zamir did by leaking the transcript of the Gaza soldiers' testimonies last week have spread word that he is a leftist ideologue out to harm Israel.
In 1990, Mr. Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves, was sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony involving religious Jews visiting the West Bank city of Nablus. For some, that refusal is a badge of honor; for others it is an act of insubordination and treason. A quiet campaign began on Thursday regarding Mr. Zamir's leftist sympathies, to discredit the transcript he publicized.
At the same time, Rabbi Rontzki's numerous sayings and writings have been making the rounds among leftist intellectuals. He has written, for example, that what others call "humanistic values" are simply subjective feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah.
He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.
[Comment: Three points. First, it is true that contemporary humanism is purely subjective. It maintains no clear values and no objective criteria. Second, who says the Torah's values aren't humane? Is any attempt to compare them undertaken? This is pure demagogy. Third, as Rav Soloveitchik once noted, this formal reason for allowing Sabbath deseceration to save a non-Jew is, albeit, morally troublesome. However, the result is genuinely salutary and should be added to the extensive egalitarian legislation on behalf of gentiles made by the Talmudic sages. Highlighting this isolated point is more demagogy. In addition, legal systems work within their own frames of reference. Thus, the humanistic impulse behind extension of Sabbath desecration to save non-Jewish lives had to be legally based in purely halakhic terms. That says absolutely nothing about the genuineness of the impulse or the autonomous life of the legal license.]
Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi Rontzki, said the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves. The debate is over three issues — the sanctity of land versus life; the relationship between messianism and Zionism; and the place of non-Jews in a sovereign Jewish state.
The religious left argues that the right has made a fetish of the land of Israel instead of letting life take precedence, he said. The religious left also rejects the messianic nature of the right's Zionist discourse, and it argues that Jewish tradition values all life, not primarily Jewish life.
"The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism," he said. "They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all."
[Comment: The information here is moot and warrants separate treatment. As an historian, I categorically reject Prof. Halbertal's imputing fascist or hypernationalist motivations to the mainstream, right wing of the religious community.]