Onward, Jewish Soldiers
Ephron, Dan, Newsweek
Byline: Dan Ephron
A surge of 'knitted skullcaps' is transforming Israel's military--and that worries their secular countrymen.
Among the elite troops of the Israeli military's Maglan special-forces unit, Naftali Bennett was an oddity. As an officer in the unit in the early 1990s, he commanded more than 80 young men, all of them secular and many from kibbutzim communities aligned with the left-center Labor Party. Bennett is an observant Jew, and among combat officers throughout the military he was one of the few who wore a yarmulke, didn't travel on Saturdays, and never ate cheeseburgers because of the Jewish ban on mixing milk and meat.
Now long a civilian, Bennett had a chance recently to visit with new recruits in his old unit. Two things struck him: the large number of religious Jews among the young men, and the Army's extraordinary efforts to accommodate them. "In my day, no one gave it a thought," he says.
A transformation is sweeping the Israeli military: deeply religious Jews are now filling leadership positions in numbers far exceeding their share of the general population. Given that religious Israelis tend to be more hawkish than most, the trend raises a real question about whether Israel can rely on the Army to implement the toughest parts of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
U.S. efforts to keep the talks alive continued last week as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government weighed a new 90-day ban on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But if a peace deal is ever achieved, it would undoubtedly require the evacuation of at least some settlements--a job for the Army. Some defense analysts and former officers worry that the military's new religiosity could lead to mass insubordination. "If soldiers decide they don't want to participate, that's one thing," says Mikhael Manekin, a reserve lieutenant who co-chairs the left-wing group Breaking the Silence. "If commanders don't want to participate, that would be much more worrying." (Manekin says all his commanding officers were settlers during his four years of active duty.)
The threat isn't as farfetched as it sounds. Ever since the government demolished the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, former residents have kept trying to establish an illegal outpost there, and authorities have kept sending troops to evict them. A year ago, during swearing-in ceremonies for new recruits of the Shimshon Battalion in Jerusalem, several soldiers unfurled a banner proclaiming: SHIMSHON DOES NOT EVACUATE HOMESH. The military court-martialed the perpetrators, sentenced them to the brig, and expelled them from their unit. But in the weeks that followed, similar signs were displayed at two other units' training bases.
Although the military publishes little information about the backgrounds of its enlistees, a recent issue of the defense journal Maarachot reported that in recent years some 30 percent of graduates from the infantry officers' course have defined themselves as "Zionist-religious," up from only 2.5 percent 20 years ago. (About 12 percent of Israelis in general choose that label.) Many of those fledgling lieutenants, along with a number of higher-ranking combat officers, were drawn from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and some are residents of outposts--smaller, makeshift settlements--established without authorization from the government.
The mere specter of widespread refusal is enough to make the government think twice before ordering evacuations, whether of settlements or of outposts, says sociologist Yagil Levy, who specializes in military trends. (The threat might explain why most outposts remain standing despite Israel's promise to dismantle dozens of them under a U.S. initiative back in 2003.) Some analysts have suggested that the police should handle future evacuations, rather than the Army.
The rise within the military of the "knitted skullcaps" has been building for years. …