Orthodox Jews in the IDF are a Blessing for Israel
The other day I received an email from a friend in Canada to which he attached an article written last week by a Nathan Hersh in the Jewish World blogger section of Haaretz. The article, entitled: “Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the IDF would be a disaster for Israel” and a sub-headline: “When Haredis put the commands of their religious leaders ahead of those of their officers, the Israel Defense Forces will be incapable of fulfilling its ultimate purpose: to protect the Jewish state.”
My friend suggested I should respond to what he felt was a confused and biased article about Haredi military service. I read Mr. Hersh’s article and my friend was right. Mr. Hersh, whom I’ve never met, and whom I assume is a generally considerate and intelligent fellow, wore his personal politics and abject ignorance of Judaism and religious people on his sleeve as he penned his rather confused blog.
He writes that during his army service he was stationed somewhere in Judea and Samaria and one of “the settlers” – one of those who brought hot tea to the soldiers guarding on cold nights – approached one of Mr. Hersh’s fellow soldiers, a religious person himself (unlike Mr. Hersh), engaged him in conversation, discovered they were distantly related (how Jewish), and “eventually the settler asked my friend (the religious soldier) if he would be ready when the time comes,” Mr. Hersh relates, “to refuse orders.” According to Mr. Hersh, “He was referring to orders to dismantle and relocate settlements deemed illegal under Israeli law.”
Apparently Mr. Hersh, who clearly identifies with the left side of the political spectrum (to which he is entitled to do, of course), appears overly concerned with the IDF’s capability to carry out orders to dismantle settlements – instead of the police which is the official State organization to implement court orders against civilians – , and less so with the actual and officially designated task of the army – to defend the citizens and land of Israel from attack by Arab armies and terrorists who comprise our actual enemies.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hersh brings this subject as an introduction to his main point: “The army is already engaged in a struggle against emboldened religiousness,” he writes. “Haredim have proven that the rabbi’s word comes before those of military commanders.” I realize Mr. Hersh must mean well, but it is at this point where his ignorance shows. First the army is not “engaged in a struggle against emboldened religiousness” whatever that means, and he obviously is clueless regarding who is identified as a “Haredi” and who is merely “religious” or, if you will, identified as a “Dati-Leumi” (National-Religious”) soldier. Despite Mr. Hersh’s declaration that “Haredim have proven that the rabbi’s word comes before those of military commanders,” he not only fails to prove his case or even give one concrete example, he is not referring to “Haredim” but “Dati-Leumi” soldiers which will become evident by his next paragraphs.
His leftwing, ultra-secular agenda becomes crystal clear when he writes: “if the IDF were to increase the number of extreme religious soldiers, it would introduce a new, ultra-Orthodox agenda to the military that, at some point, would work against the army’s – and the state’s – agenda.” And what is this so-called agenda that he has summarily assigned to both the IDF (a deliberately apolitical entity) and the State? “If the ultra-Orthodox are incapable of adapting to the civilian standards of a free, democratic society,” Mr. Hersh opines, “how could we expect Haredi soldiers to abide by the secular standards of our military?”
According to Mr. Hersh, the IDF has “secular standards.” It doesn’t. It has Jewish standards. While it is a framework that accommodates both religious and non-religious, or if you will, secular, soldiers, its General Regulations are also in accordance with basic practices of Jewish Law. All army kitchens must be kosher. On the Sabbath and Holidays military vehicles are driven and electronic equipment – from computers to electric gates et al, are operated on the basis of operational need, and not merely on the whim of a particular officer. The Sabbath and Holidays are part and parcel of the IDF calendar and every IDF base, big and small has a fully equipped synagogue. Before Pesach (Passover), the entire army with all its kitchens in established bases, small outposts, and even roadside pillboxes are made “Kosher for Passover.” A soldier, even a commanding officer, who purposely brings bread, for example, onto an army base on Pesach faces a court martial. On Sukkot, every unit has a Sukkah and on Chanuka, every unit lights a Chanukia (Chanuka Menorah), etc. etc.
Even the official Ethical Code of the IDF includes Jewish Tradition as one of its four core elements. So with all due respect to Mr. Hersh, the IDF is a Jewish army, not a secular one. True, soldiers are free, of course, to observe or not observe as they wish on a personal level, but from the days when Ben-Gurion set up the IDF and understood the necessity of establishing a basic Jewish religious framework for the IDF to allow both religious and non-religious to serve together, the IDF is an all-inclusive army of the Jewish State.
Mr. Hersh continues his inaccurate tirade with: “For more than a decade the secular community has been responsible for protecting the country – including the ultra-Orthodox – as a result of the Tal Law.” The word “inaccurate” is polite. The sentence is flat out untrue. In his misguided zeal to attack the “Tal Law” which was designed and accepted by majority vote in the Knesset and extended for the past ten years by governments on both the left and right until today and the recent Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Hersh proves either his ignorance or mendacity.
One, since the advent of the Tal Law, Haredi enlistment increased significantly. From 2005 until 2010, the number of Haredim enlisting for military service increased seven-fold. And two, since when did the “secular community” have a monopoly on army service?
If one is to be so petty, let’s get our facts straight: in the combat units – those who bear the brunt of “protecting the country” – not only is there a disproportionate percentage of religious soldiers and officers – from the National Religious sector – as compared to their percentage in the Israeli population, there is an even more disproportionate percentage of combat officers from the “settlements” in Judea and Samaria (literally double the national average) who have apparently replaced the kibbutzim whose progeny comprised the cream of the IDF officer corps. in the first decades of the State. Moreover, as was evident in the 2006 Second Lebanon War when some 30,000 combat reservists were called up, over 50% of the combat reservists are religious. So with all due respect to “secular” soldiers, they are not only not alone in defending the State, they may well be a minority in the elite combat units.
Mr. Hersh seems incapable of distinguishing between “Haredim”, “National-Religious” and “settlers”, since he mixes them all together as one group. He warns that “if the Haredim gain a larger role in the IDF, the army risks losing its ethical standards to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox, and any friction in the military will greatly limit its effectiveness.” Why? According to Mr. Hersh: “One of the primary tenets of the army is the demand that each soldier sacrifices his or her individual identity for the sake of the group…… Everyone sacrifices. Religious soldiers are often under especially great pressure to put the army’s needs before their religious obligations, sacrifices that assure the army’s cohesion and ability, guaranteeing its power.”
As previously noted, while it may be more difficult to be a fully observant Jew in a combat field unit than at home in civilian life, the IDF has established a regulations based framework to facilitate being a fully observant Jew under even the most difficult circumstances, and wartime is at the top of the list. Furthermore, since it is a Mitzvah from the Torah to defend the Nation and Land from our enemies, the “army’s needs” is an integral part of “their religious obligations.” Hence, there is no clash. The personal sacrifices Mr. Hersh calls for are already understood by the religious soldier. It is called “Mesirut Nefesh” – “self-sacrifice” – and according to Jewish sources, this is the basis for one’s fighting spirit in combat. And for the IDF, whose designated task is to prepare and be ready for war, to defend the citizens and territory of the State, it is “Mesirut Nefesh” that will “guarantee its power.”
Mr. Hersh, wearing his biases on his sleeve writes as “proof” that Haredeim are incapable of adjusting to military life and needs: “The past several months have proven this already: in December of last year, a mob of angry settlers (read: a handful of angry kids mostly not from the “settlements” themselves) stormed a base in the West Bank, injuring one officer. It was an act of aggression against the military and the state for clearing illegal West Bank outposts.” While the aforementioned officer was slightly injured from a rock thrown at his jeep (not at said base) – and he himself is from a “settlement”, Mr. Hersh neither explains what is the connection to “Haredim” serving in the army, nor what said incident, which was also denounced by “settlement” leaders and the rabbinic leadership in Judea and Samaria, has to do with IDF service, period.
But Mr. Hersh continues: “In January of this year, religious soldiers abandoned ceremonies with female singers in protest of their being forced to listen,” he opines. “Their “commander” was not their IDF officer, but Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who holds no position in the military at all.”
Said religious soldiers, who were combat infantry officer cadets, did not “abandon ceremonies with female singers in protest of their being forced to listen” as Mr. Hersh would have us believe, as he repeats the agenda driven inaccurate media reports. The cadets did not disrupt the ceremonies, did not yell out in protest of female singing, and did not demonstrate against it. During the musical break in the ceremonies, they simply got up and left, quietly, as not to interfere with the enjoyment of those who did stay.
Mr. Hersh is comparing the religious stringency to not listen to female soloists, to refusing orders from a commanding officer on the battlefield. Considering that these cadets who were all previously combat squad leaders and graduates of the IDF Sergeants Course, were chosen by their respective unit commanders to go to the IDF Officers Course, demonstrates in what high regard these cadets were held. Having a verbal disagreement with a specific commander in the hallway outside an auditorium on whether or not they were obligated to listen to a female singer may or not be the correct thing to do, but it hardly ranks as a challenge to IDF High Command authority to wage war against the enemies of Israel.
Despite Mr. Hersh’s attempt to impugn Haredi soldiers, the nine cadets in question were identifiably of the “National-Religious” sector and not “Haredim.” Rabbi Elyakim Levanon was not involved at all in their quietly slipping out the back row of the darkened auditorium, and was not involved in talks with the commanders of the unit or Officers Training School. He is the respected head of a Hesder Yeshiva that sends hundreds of students to serve in the best units of the IDF. Rabbi Levanon, considered by Hebrew University Professor Avinoam Rosenak as a “moderate”, is a leading rabbinical figure in the Religious-Zionist camp, and not a “Haredi” rabbi. So again, what is Mr. Hersh’s problem?
Finally, Mr. Hersh concludes by deciding that “the ultra-Orthodox” – i.e.: the “Haredim” are “incapable” of adjusting to the IDF. He writes: “The IDF requires its soldiers put the army ahead of everything else and the Haredim themselves have admitted they are incapable of doing this. To enlist them in the IDF would undermine our army’s ethical standards and hurt its primary function: to protect the State of Israel.” Thus Nathan Hersh, the enlisted man with a personal political agenda.
On the other hand, when then Chief of Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Haredi soldiers in Sept. 2010 who had just completed a computer programming course, at the IDF School of Computer Professionalism, he offered quite a different viewpoint. He said: “I am very proud to see you integrating in such a natural and successful manner to select jobs and in the leading technological units of the IDF. The absorption of Haredi soldiers into the IDF in recent years in the Air Force, Naval Corps, Ground Forces, Intelligence Corps and the Telecommunications Directorate is a story of success which should be continued and increased as much as possible,” Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi declared. Moreover, the Haredi soldiers told the Chief of Staff that they are being used as a model for many other youth in the ultra Orthodox community.
Nathan Hersh is entitled to his personal political positions, but he should not be publicly pontificating about things of which he obviously does not know. His fallacious attack against his fellow citizens of Israel is hurtful and does not contribute to the strength in unity that Israel so needs.
The author currently holds the rank of Lt. Colonel in the IDF reserves.
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel.