Sunday, December 19, 2010

Israel: Beware Military and Religious Ties

It is becoming ever more evident that the state of Israel is in danger of being held hostage by its religious conservatives. A number of factors have converged to provide this minority with a disproportionate amount of influence.

In 1948 the Zionist leaders, who were mostly planning on a secular homeland for all Jews, made a Faustian bargain with an Orthodox religious group referred to as the “Chief Rabbinate.” Authority for the Chief Rabbinate was first ceded by the British decades before. The net result was that Israel would share governmental and judicial responsibilities with this religious group. This inclusion of a specific religious sect into the fabric of the state would have significant ramifications for any who would call themselves Jews, and, today, may pose an existential threat to the democratic state of Israel.

Not surprisingly, this Chief Rabbinate was given responsibility for interpreting and mandating specific religious functions for religious Jews. What is startling is that the state also gave them responsibility for all marriages and divorces and the authority to decide who was legally a Jew. There are no civil marriages in Israel. If you do not wish an Orthodox marriage, or you do not qualify, you must leave the country to get married. Marriages in other countries are recognized by the state.

The Orthodox religious have their own political party. While not large numerically, within the splintered party landscape of Israeli politics this group can have wield an inordinate amount of power.

The most serious ramifications of this religious influence are in the area of international relations. The world wants to see a two-state solution arrived at in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The religious conservatives want to see Israel’s lands restored to their Biblical boundaries—the ones God promised them. Gadi Taub wrote a column addressing this issue.
“The secular Zionist dream was fundamentally democratic. Its proponents, from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion, sought to apply the universal right of self-determination to the Jews, to set them free individually and collectively as a nation within a democratic state. (In fact, the Zionist movement had a functioning democratic parliament even before it had a state.)”

“This dream is now seriously threatened by the religious settlers’ movement, Orthodox Jews whose theological version of Zionism is radically different. Although these religious settlers are relatively few — around 130,000 of the total half-a-million settlers — their actions could spell the end of the Israel we have known.”
Taub says these people have religious convictions that are narrowly focused.
“....a single commandment: to settle all the land promised to the ancient Hebrews in the Bible....disciples, energized by a burning messianic fervor, took Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 as confirmation of this theology and set out to fulfill its commandment. Religious enthusiasm made the movement subversive in a deep sense — adherents believed they had a divine obligation to build settlements and considered the authority of Israel’s democratic government conditional on its acceptance of what they declared to be God’s politics.”
Taub worries that a democratic Israel cannot survive if these people get their way, because the only way for Israel to rule such an entity would be by establishing an apartheid regime. Actually, there are three other options. One can enslave the Palestinians, one can drive them out, or one can kill them—all methods approved by the Bible.

A recent article in The American Prospect by Gershom Gorenberg, Beware the Military-Religious Complex, alerts us to the fact that there is a conservative religious influence that has taken root in the Iraeli army. It is related to an accommodation made with what are called hesder yeshivah.
“A yeshivah is a place where people (well, usually men) study Talmud and other Jewish religious texts. Hesder means ‘arrangement.’ The arrangement was born in the mid-1960s, when the Israeli army let students at one yeshivah alternate between stretches of active duty and periods of religious study. While in yeshivah, they were available for immediate call-up. Hesder soldiers had to commit themselves to extra time in the combined program but spent fewer months in active service than other conscripts.”

“Hesder yeshivot were a compromise designed for religious Zionists, the part of the Orthodox community that supports the existence of a Jewish state (unlike the ultra-Orthodox, who see Zionism as a secular substitute for Judaism and generally exploit loopholes to avoid the universal draft). In a country where combat duty was a key to social status and the secular left dominated the army, the arrangement allowed young Orthodox men to serve in their own companies (later platoons) and avoid social pressure to give up religion. It also let them get in some religious study. The army got a few more combat soldiers with high motivation. It seemed like a safe, small-scale deal.”

“The arrangement mushroomed after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The feeling of having experienced a miracle had a mind-altering effect on much of the religious Zionist community. As part of a religious revival, the ideas of the old secular right -- territorial expansion, national honor, military power as a value in itself -- got dressed up as theology. More men wanted to combine combat service and religious study. Besides seeing the hesder yeshivot as a source of good soldiers, the government used new yeshivot as one more way of creating an Israeli presence in occupied territory. The teachers were largely advocates of the new ultra-nationalist theology. Without paying any attention, the government was feeding a new, ethically challenged form of Judaism.”
Unfortunately, times change and so did the attractiveness of military service for many Israelis.
“….the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and endless duty policing the occupied territories eroded secular Israelis' enthusiasm for combat duty and becoming officers. Orthodox soldiers, including hesder students, filled the gap. But in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the army had to avoid using infantry brigades with large numbers of religious soldiers. The brass did not want to test whether they'd follow orders to evacuate settlers, especially after some prominent heads of hesder yeshivot proclaimed that it was a sin to do so.”

“There's a vicious cycle at work. Israel continues to hold the West Bank and build settlements. Policing occupied territory and protecting settlers are military burdens, increasing the need for combat soldiers and officers who aren't ambivalent about the job. To meet that need, the army depends ever more on the religious right. Yet this increases the danger of a breakdown in the military when an Israeli government finally does decide to pull out of the West Bank. Large numbers of soldiers, including officers, could refuse to take part. Politicians don't like to talk about this, but it adds one more reason for them to postpone tough decisions.”
It was clear the Israel had to contend with unyielding politicians, and that it had settlers who would resort to violence. But to also have armed forces responsible for executing the state’s commands that cannot be trusted is disastrous.

I fear this will not end well.

1 comment:

  1. Rich,
    I found your observations about Israeli society very interesting.

    If you'd like to follow these issues on a regular basis, may I suggest visiting Religion and State in Israel.

    Joel Katz
    @religion_state on Twitter


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