By Arieh O'Sullivan

Jerusalem, Israel

A few days ago, a crack Israeli combat unit wrapped up a stint along the Gaza border and was deploying for training across the country. On the way, its commander diverted his soldiers to Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, to hear a sermon from a rabbi and make a blessing.

While the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said none were forced to participate in the religious ceremony, it did raise the hackles of secular Israelis who are concerned that the incident represented the creeping influence of deeply religious Jews into what had once been the exclusive realm of secular Zionists.

This argument came to bear over the weekend when the army chaplain altered the words of the official memorial prayer for fallen soldiers to read "In God's name we remember" instead of the traditional "In Israel's name we remember."

"I see what is happening in the army as a sign and it is very worrying," Dr. Rafi Mann, who teaches communications at the Ariel University Center of Samaria, told The Media Line. "I never say we should reject our heritage, but at this rate we may have a rabbi attached to every unit just like the Soviets had a politruk alongside their officers."

The question of dual loyalty of Jews in uniform has been bantered around for the past decade, ever since the national religious youth began leaving their seminaries, joining elite combat units and making careers of military service.

The transformation has seen the deeply religious Jews filling leadership positions in numbers far beyond their proportion in the general population. Since religious Israelis tend to have more hawkish views, some are concerned the army may face mass insubordination if asked to carry out any controversial moves to implement a future peace deal with the Palestinians, such as dismantling Jewish communities.

The IDF Spokesman's Unit claims it cannot supply figures on religious soldiers. "The IDF does not differentiate between religious and secular soldiers," an army spokesman said.

However, a recent edition of the defense journal Maarachot cited that in recent years some 30 percent of infantry officer course graduates identify themselves as "Zionist-religious," up from just a mere 2.5 percent two decades ago. In comparison, only about 12 percent of the general public place themselves in this category.

"There is nothing wrong having our army being Jewish," said Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council, the organization representing Israelis living in post-1967 communities, and a former combat officer.

"The loyalty has to be to the state of Israel which is represented by the army. And the army needs to represent Jewish values," Bennett told The Media Line.

Bennett, who is an observant Jew who wears a 'yarmulke' (or kippa), eats strictly kosher food and doesn't travel on the Sabbath, said that as a commander in the early 1990s he was an odd-bird since most of the soldiers in his elite unit were his soldiers were secular. Their education seminars usually dealt with hearing of the exploits of the army like the Entebbe commando raid and never about Judaism.

About a decade ago, the IDF added a course on Judaism in its officers' academy. Once, religious soldiers, who pray three times a day, had to pray on their break time. Today, prayer time is set aside in the daily schedules.

Bennett echoes the arguments of the national religious populace, saying that having a soldier who is knowledgeable of religion and heritage did not mean they were taking a political stand.

"There is a distinction between that and politicizing the army, which I am against. I think the army has to stay out of political arguments," said Bennett.

Religious pre-army academies, most of which are located in the territories acquired by Israel during the 1967 war, have indoctrinated their students with the message to go out and be the bravest and toughest soldiers. The proliferation of national religious soldiers in the army's most elite units is a source of pride for some, and cause for concern for others.

"It is to their credit that these folks have taken the place that had been filled by the boys from the collective farms (kibbutz). On the other hand, the question is how much can you ensure that they will take the military rule fully and not allow religious bodies to bite into their authority?" Mann questioned.

That said, despite vocal fears, there were nearly zero cases of soldiers refusing to obey orders to forcibly evacuate Jews from their homes during Israel withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

However, six years have passed since the Gaza pull-out and the ranks of religious soldiers have grown, which may explain why some illegal Jewish outposts have remained in the West Bank despite government promises to dismantle them.

Last week, 10 soldiers in the elite Golani brigade were sentenced to the brig for wearing at a ceremony t-shirts proclaiming "Golani fights the enemy and does not expel Jews." And on Monday, hoards of deeply religious pre-army youth converged on the capital, blocked the main roads and attempted to storm the Supreme Court of Justice after a well-known right-wing rabbi was arrested for allegedly endorsing a book that incites violence against non-Jews.

"I think that Israel is coming to a juncture where it has to answer the significant question of whether it wants to continue being a Jewish, democratic, Zionist, modern, enlightened state or shall we turn into a rabbinical 'Judeastan,'" said Rafi Mann.

Mann said that the ranks of religiously observant soldiers have been strengthened and that they "are trying to change the character of the state."

The upper ranks of the IDF are still mainly secular, albeit the deputy chief of general staff and two others on the general staff are religiously observant (and graduates of the same high school class). Today, an over-proportionate number of these soldiers make up the mid-level ranks and their ascendency to top roles in the future is only natural.

"I am not going to count yarmulkes. I was at a 25-year reunion of my unit, and when army commanders got up to speak they not only quoted (Israel's first prime minister David) Ben Gurion, but now for the first time quoted also from the Bible. That means our army is becoming more Jewish," Bennett said.


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