Forward Thinking

Demography as Destiny: Israel's Growing Right Shapes Law, Military

By J.J. Goldberg

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The increasingly progressive Atlantic Monthly correspondent and former Forward staffer Jeffrey Goldberg (for the last time, no, we’re not the same person) posted a link on his blog Tuesday to an online essay — which he called “hard to disagree with” — by senior research fellow Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine. Here’s the excerpt Goldberg posted on his blog:

The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.

The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.

For the record, I’ve been writing about this Israeli demographic shift for a couple of years now: (Here and here with numbers on the overall demographic trend; here, here and here on the way it’s affecting the army and the alarm within the General Staff over the topic.) Up to now the issue hasn’t much entered the public discourse in this country, partly because it’s obscure and rarely hits the front pages in Israel; partly, too, because it touches on some pretty radioactive Jewish sensibilities. It seems like it’s taken the Boycott Law and the larger debate over anti-democratic legislation (here is a pretty sharply framed Haaretz piece on the trend) to put it on the agenda here.

As a matter of fact, demography hit the front pages in Israel this week for an entirely different reason: the debate within the army that I’ve written about on the impact of religious soldiers exploded this week, following the Tuesday publication of a bombshell Haaretz report on a lengthy letter by a top Israel Defense Forces general to the chief of staff, warning of a growing threat of religious extremism in the military.

The document was written for circulation among the General Staff by the recently retired head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, Major General Avi Zamir, on the occasion of his stepping down a month ago. According to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, who obtained a leaked copy, the letter “details the struggle between the Education Corps and the Military Rabbinate, and says rabbinic demands for modesty undermine the standing of female officers and soldiers.”

Zamir warns “there are efforts by rival groups to shape public norms so they fit their own private agendas.” He considers the IDF a critical arena in the fight for the state’s character, and says that its norms therefore have enormous impact.

The senior officer says the IDF must show great awareness and act carefully. Zamir says that if the army does not act now, the cultural war among the ranks will intensify, and this may seriously endanger the abilities of the IDF to carry out its tasks.

A great part of the current debate is focused on the order for “appropriate inclusion,” which was introduced in 2003 at rabbis’ demands, and was originally intended to minimize tension between religious soldiers and female soldiers by creating a physical separation.

For example, men cannot enter women’s barracks and religious soldiers may serve in men-only units. Moreover, in units where women serve in combat roles, like the Home Front Command and some units in the Engineering Corps, there are men-only companies.

The report has caused a storm of debate. Haaretz wrote in an editorial today that the army’s high command was being dangerously passive in the face of what amounts to a challenge to its authority by “its rival, the rabbis.”

At the other extreme, Orthodox journalist Yedidya Meir of Radio Kol Chai, a former officer in the military rabbinate, complains in a bitterly sarcastic column on Ynet.com today (Hebrew only) that the secular elites want religious men to serve, but then don’t like the way they behave once they’re in uniform. Much of the General Staff, he writes, “is uncomfortable that the IDF no longer resembles the Palmach,” the socialist, kibbutz-based pre-state milita. He writes:

If an alien were to land in Israel today, he would be certain that the IDF faces only two challenges: dismantling Jewish outposts and organizing performances by female singers.

Ynet also has a powerful second-day news report, here in Hebrew and here in a severely truncated English version, reporting on reactions to the Zamir document. Much of it is devoted to an interview with Zamir’s predecessor, Maj. Gen. Eleazar Stern, an Orthodox Jew of famously liberal leanings. The headlines in the two editions, both quotes from Stern, tell you all you need to know about Israel’s schizophrenic identity struggle. The English headline reads: “Some people think army is yeshiva.” The Hebrew one reads: “Religious extremism? Zamir lit a bonfire and walked away.”

Ynet also quotes at length from the previous IDF chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avihai Rontzki, the author of much of the policy Zamir complains about. It’s worth quoting at length; it’s strong stuff, and much of it is missing from the English version (which appears to have lost a crucial sentence, making it sound like some key quotes are from Stern).

Rontzki began by responding to Zamir’s proposal that education on Jewish identity and Israel’s rights be transferred from the rabbinate back to the Education Corps:

”Who are the officers in this corps? These are just guys from Tel Aviv! They can’t teach Judaism – where will they get their information from, Wikipedia?”

Ronsky added that he believes such awesome battles are taking place over the IDF because it is Israel’s most influential education system. [added in Hebrew: “This is a battle over the image of Israeli society – no less,” he explained.]

”The question is whether it will have the image of a Jewish national army – and I’m not referring to religion – which stresses Jewish history, the Bible, and other connections with religion, or whether it will be an army of a ‘people’s state’.”

[Hebrew only:] “In 2005 I was appointed to head the Appropriate Inclusion Authority. We worked day and night for three months to draft the conclusions and implement them in the army, and I can say with certainty that the main violations today are the disadvantage of religious soldiers.” Rontzki cited several examples of “objectionable” decisions, such as the singing of the national anthem by a woman soldier at an officers’ training course ceremony, despite the fact that most of the students were religious, or the appointment of a female communications officer in a combat unit. “One brigade commander told me explicitly: ‘I have a problem with the fact that she is with me and eight other soldiers on patrol for several days in an armored vehicle. It’s not right. It damages my level of functioning [ramah mivtza’it].”


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