Attrition: The Religious Rot In Israel


June 24, 2011:  Religious extremists are attacking the Israeli military from without, and from within. The Israeli armed forces have, over the last decade, spent an increasing amount of their time dealing with religious extremists. Most of the time, the enemy is some Islamic radical group, like Hamas or al Qaeda. But more and more, Jewish religious radicals have become a threat, often from within.

A big problem is draft exemptions granted to members of conservative Jewish sects. These groups have their own political parties. Because Israel has a parliamentary form of government, these small religious parties often make it possible for one of the larger parties to gain a majority in parliament, and thus form a government. But the religious parties exact a price, and one of the more unpopular ones is exemption from military service for the children of these communities. Thus while every 18 year old woman, who does not belong to a religious community, gets drafted for two years (unless she is married, or has a physical or psychological disability), no 18 year old women in the religious communities are conscripted. It's nearly as bad for the young men, although some 18 year old men from religious communities volunteer. Most do not, and their absence in the military is increasingly noted.

The problems extend beyond draft dodging. Last year, the head of the armed forces openly reminded all officers that, when they are on active duty, they must obey their officers, and not their rabbis. The major dispute comes from the deeply religious settler (in the West Bank) community. These are the Jews that believe in “Greater Israel.” That is, an Israel that takes over the West Bank and all other territories that were once part of Israel in the ancient past. This would include, depending on which version of Greater Israel you believe in, parts of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other nearby countries. The Greater Israel movement is particularly popular in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and, until 2005, in Gaza).

The Palestinians, naturally, don’t agree with this form of expansionism. Israel, being a democracy, has found that a majority of the population does not agree with the Greater Israel idea either. So periodic decisions to shut down the settlements in Gaza brings the government into direct confrontation with the Greater Israel movement. Since the settlers believe they are obeying a religious mandate to resettle historically Jewish lands, they see efforts to remove them in religious, not political, terms. Israel has a conscript army, thus many of the troops are believers in the Greater Israel concept. These soldiers are being told by their religious leaders that they should refuse orders to assist in the removal of settlers from Gaza. This brings us back to the commander of the Israeli armed forces reminding everyone that the religious leaders have no authority to countermand orders from military commanders.

This is not the first time individual Israelis have refused to follow military orders they did not agree with. In the past, these soldiers were simply removed from service, and sometimes jailed. But now the number of soldiers who might be involved numbers in the thousands. The army is allowing some soldiers, with relatives in settlements to be shut down, to, if need be, transfer to another unit. But beyond that, the army is telling the troops that it will not allow rabbis to countermand military orders. Any soldier who refuses to obey officers will be punished. Some generals are demanding a similar approach to the many draft exemptions religious Jews get.

The problem Israel faces is not unique. All nations have, at one time or another, run into problems when divisive political, or religious, issues caused a breakdown of discipline. If the dissenting groups are large enough, such disagreements can lead to civil war. Some extremist Jewish religious leaders have called for that. But for now, the number of soldiers, who might be tempted to disobey orders, appears to be small. This is partly because many of the most religious young men are exempt from conscription if they are engaged in religious studies.

This is becoming more of an issue with non-religious 18 year olds, and their families, when they note the growing number of draft exemptions given to young men and women belonging to religious sects. This means that those who do get drafted, later (as reservists) get called up more often to deal with terrorism or other security threats.

This is evolving into a major problem, despite the fact that Israel is a democracy. Major decisions, like who should be conscripted, should represent the majority. While the religious parties in Israel have always been small (about 15 percent of the parliament), they continue to demand, and get, more special treatment. These parties are more religious than political, and are also seeking new laws that will increase the power of religion in day to day life. The fear in Israel is that some of the deeply religious Jews will become radicalized, and violent. As some Israelis have been heard to observe, “Israel is turning into a Middle Eastern country.”




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