For God and country: The rise of a religious IDF

Sunday, September 19, 2010 |  Ryan Jones

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has always had a certain biblical element to it. Top IDF commanders, be they religious or secular, have never shied away from invoking biblical military heroes to inspire their troops. But the IDF has also always a bastion of neutrality in a nation increasingly torn down a religious-secular divide.

That is why researchers at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv expressed surprise last week when the vast majority of Israelis said they didn’t care that a growing number of IDF commanders are from the national-religious camp.

In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox movement, religious Jews belonging to the national-religious camp all serve in the army, hold down regular jobs and see the modern State of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They are usually characterized by knitted skullcaps, or kippas.

In the Begin-Sadat poll, 79 percent of Israelis said they were “not concerned at all” that today about 35 percent of IDF commanders holding a rank of captain or higher are religious. Just 20 years ago, in 1990, only 2.5 percent of IDF commanders were religious.

While the prevailing wisdom is that religious soldiers are usually more courageous on the battlefield and more dedicated to their military service, officials at the Begin-Sadat Center feared they would also be more prone to refuse government orders to uproot Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria (the so-called “West Bank”).

It is precisely that kind of politicization of military orders that is likely fueling the rise of a more religious IDF. Israel’s left-wing media establishment viciously berated the few commanders who refused orders to uproot the Jews of Gaza in 2005, but regularly holds aloft as heroes those soldiers who refuse to protect the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.

Because the bulk of the army’s orders are characterized by the left-wing as “oppression of the Palestinians,” the IDF itself is increasingly seen as a symbol of the Right, and more specifically the bible-believing Right.

So, it should come as little surprise that left-leaning Israelis are keen to hurry through their mandatory service and get out of the army, while religious, biblically-focused Israelis are increasingly motivated to make a career out of their military service.

Fortunately, the Begin-Sadat poll shows that the media talking heads and the academics in their ivory towers are a vocal minority, and that most Israelis have no problem with their army going in this direction.

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