In 1999, the IDF approved the establishment of a special Haredi (ultra-orthodox) army unit, called Nahal Haredi. The purpose of this unit was to allow young men from Israel’s most religious sector to serve in the IDF in an environment that would support their religious sensibilities. To accommodate these ultra-religious soldiers, certain agreements were made, including limiting these soldiers’ interactions with women.
Nahal Haredi began with just thirty men. But the IDF held true enough to its promise to protect Haredi sensibilities that the unit grew to 1,000 by 2010. In May 2010, the IDF Manpower Directorate announced that IDF recruitment had a shortfall of 10,000 men, and because national enlistments were dropping, efforts should be made to increase the recruitment of Haredi youth. In order for this recruitment to succeed, the Directorate was reported to understand that it would have to make army service attractive to and safe for the religious. In January 2011, the Israeli Cabinet took a first step by authorizing a plan to increase dramatically Haredi recruiting. It was possible to say that recruiting Haredi for the IDF was now government policy.
However, by the time this increase was authorized, it was already in trouble. Yes, the Prime Minister and IDF Chief of General Staff (COS) Gabi Ashkenazi praised the benefits of recruiting and keeping Haredi and other religious populations in the IDF, but there were some inside the IDF who were already working against that. First, Paratroopers Brigade Commander Colonel Aharon Haliva expressed ‘hatred’ for the Hesder Yeshiva program, a successful effort specifically designed to do what the army wanted to do--bring religious youth into the IDF. Haliva also denigrated the personal values of the religious in the army. With statements like these from a Commanding officer, the army is going to attract the ultra-religious? I don’t think so.
Weeks later, Colonel Eran Niv, the newly appointed commander of the IDF officer training program called Bahad 1, was characterized in an Haaretz story as one among several who worked to ‘return’ secular values to IDF field command, because thousands of highly motivated religious soldiers (and hundreds of like-minded religious officers) had begun to change ‘the face of the army.’ To help promote this secular re-focusing within in the army, groups were formed to create ‘secular Sabbaths’ that would not focus on ‘Sabbath’, but on secular values embedded in the topic, ‘the army in a democracy’. Colonel Niv was identified as one who recognized the specific need to train Orthodox officers to learn secular values; therefore, all officer cadets in Bahad 1 would attend 10 ‘secular Sabbath’ programs as part of their training.
Can you imagine the secular outrage if an IDF commander required secular officer cadets to attend 10 ‘religious Sabbaths’ so they could ‘learn religion’? In an army that is supposed to protect religious sensibilities, this attempt to target religious cadets is unconscionable.
In September 2011, several officer cadets at Bahad 1, including at least one from Nahal Haredi, were expelled from Bahad 1 because they refused to remain at a remembrance ceremony to listen to a woman sing, something their religious sensibility did not allow. In the past, the IDF had allowed soldiers to absent themselves when a woman sang. But this time, for reasons still unclear, the soldiers were not granted that permission. Despite the fact that the universal understanding was that their religious beliefs (particularly regarding women) would be respected, these religious cadets were ordered to stay at the ceremony—and when they didn’t, they were expelled because, as General Niv later declared, their duty is to obey orders.
As if to emphasize this anti-religious attitude—assuming it needed any emphasis--19 retired Generals sent a letter in mid-November to General Gantz essentially denouncing the religious in the army. If the point of the Cabinet decision was to enhance religious recruiting, the chain of events did not pass the smell test.
As a result of the expulsions and the IDF’s refusal to reinstate the agreement that religious soldiers’ sensibilities would be honoured, more than one Rabbi has now offered disapproving comments of the IDF. With this expulsion, the IDF seems to have betrayed its promises to the religious; religious leaders now consider not recommending army service, for obvious reasons.
Curiously, on Nov 21, 2011, General Gantz declared with some anger that, ‘there’s no room for banning women singing’. This was a curious statement indeed because banning women singing is not the issue. The issue is the sensibilities of certain religious soldiers who, before General Gantz became COS, had not been expelled for leaving a ceremony when a woman sang.
Gantz’ anger is misplaced. The Israeli government understands that religious Jews are enlisting. Army programs for the religious are successful. The army knows that if it accommodates the Haredi, Haredi will in fact enlist—but only if they believe that their sensibilities are protected. Nevertheless, there appears to be an anti-religious cabal in the army working to undermine a government decision to increase religious recruitment. If General Gantz allows the IDF to renege on its promises to the Haredi by allowing activist secularists to drive the religious away, then he allows politicized seculars to undermine both IDF readiness and government authority.
Gantz works for the Israeli government. All in the chain of command are required to obey him—just as he is required to obey the authority of the government. He should recall the expelled cadets and discipline the secularists. Perhaps those officers should be fired. Of course, if Gantz agrees with the secularists, then he should resign immediately—because his duty is to obey orders, not allow his underlings to subvert the Cabinet’s will.
That is not how a democracy, even a dysfunctional one like Israel, survives.