The Israel Defense Forces: Revolutionary Orientations vs. Orientations of Civility

April 6, 2010
Share:email print

Shlomo Fischer

In recent months, since the Obama administration insisted upon the settlement freeze, the religious Zionist community and the general public, as well as the media, have been concerned (again) with the issue of whether religious Zionist soldiers and officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would obey orders to dismantle settlements and evacuate settlers in Judea and Samaria — the West Bank. This concern was heightened by the recent confrontation between Rabbi Eliezer Melamad, the head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Elon Moreh, and Ehud Barak, the minister of defense, over the ex post facto support that Melamed gave to soldiers demonstrating, within army training frameworks, against such an evacuation. This concern with the loyalty of soldiers and officers is not an esoteric or trivial matter; more than 30 percent of the junior officer corps in the IDF are religious Zionists, and they are an important component in many elite units.

The controversy with Melamed showed, though, that such support for the disobedience of orders is not at all a unanimous position among radical religious Zionists and the settlers. Melamed was criticized by many of his colleagues, who reiterated their opposition to the disobedience of orders. This controversy concerning disobedience of orders goes to the heart of radical religious Zionist theology and its commitment to the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.

To fully understand the commitment of religious Zionism to the Greater Land of Israel and to the State of Israel, we have to understand a couple of its deeper ideas concerning Jewish nationalism and Jewish history. In its own understanding, religious Zionist ideology is about a synthesis of the mundane — e.g., politics, settlement, economic production, and religious and spiritual ideals. However, it does not conceive of this synthesis of the material and the spiritual in a mechanical or superficial way. Through two central theological-political ideas, it expresses the centrality of this synthesis to the essence of the Jewish people and its destiny. On the one hand, it conceives of the Jewish nation as possessing an inner will to return to God — that is, to create a state according to the ideals of the Torah, one that will eventually restore some of the lost aspects of Jewish religious existence, such as prophecy and Temple worship. This idea is in accordance with other modernist ideologies, such as Freudianism and Marxism, which attribute to human beings ideas and purposes that they are not fully conscious of and that must be uncovered and achieved.

The other complementary idea is that God works His will through the history of the entire Jewish people. The State of Israel, by encompassing and representing the entire Jewish people — religious and secular, rightists and leftists — represents God’s providence. Here, too, the idea is to create an ideal divine state, but it is to happen gradually as the consciousness of the people slowly matures. Thus, God working from above and the Jewish people working from below are to achieve the same goal — a state in the Greater Land of Israel that reflects divine ideals. These two ideas taken together represent the two potentially contradictory orientations of religious Zionism. The idea of the inner will striving for messianic fulfillment represents the revolutionary potential of religious Zionism, while the idea of the State of Israel as the incarnation of God’s providence demonstrates the religious Zionists’ deep attachment to the State of Israel.

As indicated, both ideas were supposed to work together — God from above, and Israel from below, working toward and achieving the same ideal of the divine state. In practice, however, the State of Israel diverged from this plan. By entering into peace agreements with its neighbors, Israel forfeited parts of the Greater Land of Israel and is willing to forfeit more in the context of further peace negotiations. Such a development presented religious Zionism with a dilemma. Should it remain true to its revolutionary vision or remain loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions as it actually is in practice? For some religious Zionists, the peace agreements with Egypt released its revolutionary and violent potential. In response to those peace agreements and to the Oslo Accords, they founded the Jewish settlers’ underground, which murdered Palestinians and maimed their leaders, and they assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Other religious Zionists remained steadfastedly loyal to the state and its governing institutions, accepting the decisions of duly constituted government officials even when they were in opposition to their most deeply held and cherished beliefs. These religious Zionists believe that the State of Israel cannot be forced to accept its destiny through the barrel of a gun. The consciousness of the people must be patiently educated and enlightened. Thus, 10,000 people and more than 20 settlements were peacefully evacuated in the disengagement from Gaza.

The rabbis who have called for soldiers to disobey orders that require them to evacuate settlers and dismantle settlements represent a significant voice within the religious Zionist community. These rabbis are focused upon the revolutionary messianic vision of what the State of Israel should become, and they speak in the name of what they conceive to be the inner general will of the Jewish people. Yet they are not the only voice. What was noteworthy were the very many noted religious Zionist rabbis and leaders who refrained from participating in that call. Some of those rabbis, in fact, forbade the refusal of orders. Above all, it is important to remember that both orientations — the revolutionary one and the orientation of civic loyalty — exist within most religious Zionists and that reality is dynamic. But after the successful disengagement from Gaza, the evacuated settlers received extremely shabby treatment from the Israeli government, which strengthened the revolutionary element.

What policymakers must do is to strengthen those elements within the Israeli religious Zionist community that are committed to the rule of law, democracy, and civic loyalty.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Dr. Shlomo Fischer is the founder and executive director of Yesodot — The Center for Torah and Democracy, which works within the Orthodox school system to educate for democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law. A research fellow of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Fischer teaches in the School of Education at the Hebrew University.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>