March 24, 2009 / 11:08 AM / 8 years ago

Debate in Israel over role of religion in military

5 Min Read

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."

Critical Mass

Not all religious Jews serve in the Israeli military. The ultra-Orthodox, distinctive for their black garb and beards, are, like Israel's 20-percent Muslim population, exempted from conscription. Many devote themselves instead to religious study.

Orthodox Jews who embrace modernity, on the other hand, tend to enlist in greater proportions than even secular Israelis, whose traditional support for army service has slackened, with a growing tendency to what generals lambaste as draft-dodging.

Political scientist Yagil Levy has written of the generals "losing control" over troops for whom spiritual leaders and ideology may outrank military hierarchy. Levy warns of possible difficulties if future governments end the occupation of the West Bank, where Orthodox troops sympathize with settlers.

"There is a developing phenomenon," Levy later told Reuters in an interview. "The religious population is slowly forming a critical mass in the military. And this critical mass is not cultural, but also ideological."

But Ephraim Ya'ar, author of the textbook "Trends in Israeli Society," said concerns over a growing internal conflict are exaggerated and claims of a divide untrue.

He said similar fears were voiced before Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip when some thought the evacuation of more than 8,000 settlers would lead to civil war.

At the time, the military disbanded a platoon of religious soldiers after a group of them refused to obey orders, but the majority of the operation was carried out without trouble in the ranks.

"I think that in general, the universal framework of the army is still the dominant force and I don't see today any sign of split within the army on these issues," Ya'ar said.

Ofer Shelah, an Israeli journalist who first reported the soldiers' testimonies, said the religious make up would have to be taken into account in future political decisions.

"It's true, a big part of the fighting force in the army comes from a religious background, a majority of which relates to the enemy in a different way than the old ethos we are used to," Shelah said.

"Those who don't like it should ask themselves: Who is more to blame -- the religious that go to combat units or, the secular elite that deserted them?"

Editing by Dominic Evans

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