Debate in Israel over role of religion in military

Tue Mar 24, 2009 7:04am EDT
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By Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Go to a graduation ceremony for Israeli army combat officers and you'll notice that their headgear is not quite uniform -- nearly half of the men will probably be wearing skullcaps, a symbol of Jewish piety.

Though a minority in nominally secular Israel, Orthodox Jews are disproportionately represented in a military long regarded as the national melting pot. And with the Jewish state locked in conflict with Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip, some Israelis fear a shift in their own ranks to religious militancy.

Some testimonies from the January offensive in the Palestinian enclave, published by Israeli media last week, raised concerns troops could be motivated by religious beliefs to use excessive force.

"This operation was a religious war," one left-leaning paper quoted an unidentified soldier as saying. Of army rabbis' words for troops about to go into Gaza, he said: "Their message was very clear -- we are the Jewish people ... God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles."

But some Israeli analysts argue that the uproar and questions over a growing divide between secular and Orthodox in the army, just as in the wider Israeli society, are exaggerated -- and that calls for reform in the military are premature.

Between 40 and 50 percent of new officers in frontline combat units are Orthodox Jews, experts say, though they make up less than a quarter of the general population. The military, in keeping with a notion that it is blind to social differences, does not publish data on its religious or demographic breakdown.

The furor erupted last week when the director of an academy for young men about to be conscripted went public with testimony from Gaza war veterans speaking to participants in his program. The accounts, many second-hand, told of killings of civilians, and rabbis exerting strong influence among the troops.

The head of the armed forces, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, commented for the first time on Monday. While saying he was waiting for the results of an investigation, he voiced confidence any incidents were "completely isolated."   Continued...