The New Israeli Army

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IDF religiousby Aron White

In a book released last year, Amos Harel, the army commentator for Haaretz and the author of a number of books on the Israeli military, describes how the Israeli army is changing. The changes are fascinating. Due to the internet, more information is available to new soldiers about what to expect, removing the traditional element of surprise. As the standard of life in Israel improves, soldiers expect better quality services on their army bases as well.

One of the main changes that Harel documents is the army’s increased religiosity, both in terms of its soldiers and its leadership. This drastic change impacts three major issues in Israeli society – the place of the national religious community in Israeli politics, the Haredi draft and the relationship between religious and secular.

The religious shift of the army

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of religious soldiers in the army, particularly in combat units and leadership positions. [1]All statistics, unless otherwise mentioned, come from Harel’s book. In the infantry division in the year 1990, 2.5% of commanders were graduates of religious high schools. By 2000, this figure had jumped to 15%. By 2007, the number had reached 31.4%. Within the infantry division, the Golani and Givati brigades have even higher percentages that are religious. In 2010, two thirds of the commanders in Givati were religious. The Brigadier General of the entire Givati brigade, Ofer Vinter, is himself also religious. One piece of anecdotal evidence: The author of the study quoted in Harel’s book served in the Shaldag unit in the mid 80s, when the unit had two religious soldiers, both of whom “removed their Kippa” by the time they left the army. When he returned to the unit 18 years later, 40% of the junior commanders and 30% of the senior commanders were religious. A friend of mine in Golani said that if someone were to never have seen Israel, and were to walk into his army base, he would believe that at least half the country is observant. The army is now full of religious soldiers and commanders.

This change can be explained by looking at the internal organisation of the National Religious (Dati Le’umi) community. The National Religious community places a strong emphasis on the land of Israel and the Jewish people, and thus army service is a highly esteemed value. This value was converted into its current position in the army due to a watershed development in 1988. Until 25 years ago, there were two paths National Religious teenagers would take in army service. Yeshivot Hesder (such as Kerem B’Yavneh and Yeshivat Har Etzion) provide a program whereby students would learn Torah for 3 and a half years, and serve in the army for a year and a half. Yeshivot Gevohot (such as Merkaz Harav) provide a framework where one could learn for 5 or more years before serving in the army, often for half a year or so. Students in the Hesder or Yeshiva Gavoha programs usually served in religious-only units, and most importantly, usually serve less than a full three years. In 1988, a new framework, that of the Mechinot, was established. The Mechinot provide a year of religious study for students, who then go on to serve full three years in the army, usually in the same units as everyone else. This framework has significant societal implications – these soldiers from religious communities, educated in an environment that puts great emphasis on army service, now serve for three years, and thus are able to take more senior positions in the army than previously possible. Additionally, these soldiers, who have spent a year preparing emotionally, spiritually and physically for the army are far more prepared and motivated than their peers who are arriving straight from high school – 80% of Mechina students go to combat units, almost double the national average. With the large number of highly motivated religious soldiers serving for three years, the change in leadership of the Israeli army was almost inevitable.

The place of the National Religious in Israeli Politics

The first implication of this shift is the way the National Religious community is perceived in Israeli society. It is common to characterise the pre-State years of Israel and its first three decades as the era of the secular, Kibbutz, socialist vision of Israel. In the early years of the State, continuing through the 80s and 90s, there was a tendency to say that secular socialists built the country. This was the state built by the “Tel Aviv” consensus, while Sephardim and religious minorities had not “earned their stripes” and were residents of a home built by someone else. The Israeli identity was formed by the Ashkenazi secular consensus, and other groups were peripheral to this group.

This culture has gradually broken down in a number of ways. First, of course, was the shock of the 1977 election victory of the right wing traditionalist Menachem Begin. Parts of “Tel Aviv” became embarrassed by the country and institutions they had once been proud of building, as peace with the Palestinians continued to remain elusive. And minorities–Sephardi, religious, and then Russian–began to demand their place in the development of the State.

The National Religious are now a major, if not the primary, demographic force in the Israeli army. 36% of soldiers from Gush Dan serve in combat units as opposed to the 62% of soldiers from Yehuda and Shomron, and 54% from Jerusalem (both National Religious strongholds). Efrat is the city in Israel with the highest percentage of its soldiers in leadership positions – fully 22% of its soldiers achieve Ketzuna (middle level leadership). This has created a growing sense that the National Religious also built this country, and thus a growing confidence in the political sphere. Israel will be a state that was built by Tel Aviv, but is currently being developed by Gush Etzion as well. This development has significant implications for Israeli identity and politics.

The Haredi Draft

The religious nature of the army also affects the Haredi draft. It has become orthodoxy in the Haredi community that the army is a great threat to the religiosity of soldiers, and many outside the Haredi camp begrudgingly agreed that the army was inhospitable to a religious person. Indeed, much of what the Haredim say about the army and the statistics quoted were quite accurate – but for the 80s and 90s.

The recent major shift renders untrue the view of the army as an anti-religious hotbed. The legendary encounter between the Yeshiva student and the anti-religious commander is quickly disappearing. As mentioned above, in some brigades two-thirds of the commanders are religious. (This is combined naturally with the existence of many religious-only units, but that has existed for decades.)

Beyond the issue of the commander, the growth of religious personnel also gives the army bases a more religious feel. [2]These anecdotes are from Harel’s book. During the operation in Gaza in 2009, the army newspaper BaMachane reported that soldiers from the Givati unit in the army queued up to receive a personal blessing from the unit’s rabbi, who was holding a Sefer Torah, before entering combat. The central defence building in Tel Aviv, and the General’s headquarters have a sign at the entrance explaining how to avoid activating the electronic sensor that will open the door on Shabbat. On the training base for the Nachal, outside the bathroom, the wall which once contained a list of the types of weapons held by the Syrian army has been replaced by an “Asher Yatzar” card. At an army conference a few years ago, a senior commander caused surprise by talking about the soldiers who are fighting “to protect the holy land of Gaza.” When the largely secular crowd responded angrily to this overt show of religiosity, he was supported by another senior commander. Both commanders in question are themselves not religious.

There are unquestionably issues that still arise, halachic dilemmas that crop up. Certain units may still have individual commanders who are not sensitive to the needs of the religious. But the idea that the army, as a general rule, is anti-religious is simply no longer true. The Haredi discourse must change to match this new situation, and we do not need to accept the claims (which were a little ridiculous to begin with) that service in the army threatens the perpetuation of Orthodox Judaism. As always, there are tracks in the army where one can serve entirely with religious soldiers. The recent development is that the commanders of those units are predominantly not only sensitive to the needs of the religious, but religious themselves. The army has become, and is continually becoming more, conducive to service for the Haredi community. The Haredi community will find it more difficult to excuse itself from service based on last generation’s reasons.

The relationship between religious and secular

The tide has now turned and whereas previously the religious were worried about the army being to secular, the secular are now worried about the army being too religious. There have been instances were army events are perceived as being too religious. This summer, many were surprised when the brigadier general of Givati rallied his troops with the cry of “Shema Yisrael.” In his writing for Haaretz over the years, Harel documented how the Army Rabbinate, under Chief Rabbi Rontzki, was very active in trying to bring secular soldiers closer to religion. [3] The important issue of how religious soldiers relate to their non religious comrades, and increasingly, juniors, requires clarification.

But there is one concern that looms larger than these more localised issues. There has always been a fear in the army of religious soldiers because religion provides them with another source of authority– to whom would they listen in a clash between their religion and an army command? The major flashpoint for this was the removal of settlements in Gaza in 2005. Would rabbis tell their students to refuse orders to remove residents from Gaza? Would they listen? In 2005 there was a huge discussion about this, but in the end, there were relatively few refusals to serve, mainly at junior levels of the army. Many soldiers also came to individual agreements with their commanders, thus averting head-on clashes.

But the fear has not gone away, and the implication of this issue for the two-state solution could be far greater. In the event of a two-state solution, would the religious soldiers take part in a mass removal of settlements in the West Bank – removing hundreds of thousands of people from land, such as Shechem, Kever Rachel, Chevron and Shilo, that is so central to religious people, ? Is it even possible that the army could one day have so many religious soldiers and commanders that the viability of any such operation depends on the participation of the religious soldiers? If it were known that all the religious soldiers and commanders will not participate in such an operation, could the army reach a certain point when a two state solution could actually not viably be pulled off? This situation seems very unlikely – there were numerous Rabbis who called on their students not to refuse orders in 2005, and if there was a threat to the political viability of the country, many more would likely make similar calls. However, the balance between listening to religious teachers and army hierarchy is a crucial tension that must be worked out within the National Religious community.

With its newfound hegemony in the army, the National Religious community has many complex issues to discuss. Its relation to the secular majority, both in day-to-day routine as well as in larger political decisions, must be reanalysed and discussed.


The Israeli army is different than it once was ,and the religious are now a significant feature of its makeup. Managed properly, this situation can allow for a more even spread of political power, a window to finally solve the issue of the Haredi draft, and a chance to create a less suspicious relationship between the religious and secular. There is a lot to discuss.


1All statistics, unless otherwise mentioned, come from Harel’s book.
2These anecdotes are from Harel’s book.

About Aron White

Aron White is a fourth year student at Yeshivat HaKotel.


  1. The article contains a significant error. It says:

    “Similarly, a few years ago the welcome letter for new soldiers opened with the message, ‘We are subservient to the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and this document was written with His help.'”

    If you follow the link, you will see no such thing. The booklet (not a letter) had a small “בס”ד” (something that even some “non-religious” Israelis write as a matter of course) at its top. The quote above is the secular website’s somewhat alarmist interpretation of those three letters, which don’t even carry an implication of “subservience.”

    “he would believe that at least half the country is observant.”

    As has been pointed out recently, that’s not too far off the mark, especially if one takes the more religious element of the “traditional” community into account.

    Note that, of course, most religious soldiers still today serve in the same way as everyone else. (This is the second “path” of serving pre-mechinot which for some reason is not mentioned here.)

    Also, it doesn’t seem to me that anyone in the IDF has “defended” Gaza in more than a few years.

  2. Thank you Nachum, you are totally correct. I apologise for the oversight, and will ask the editor if it can be changed.

    However, the point still remains true. Other examples for flashpoints where religion is “forced” upon secular soldiers is when certain units refuse to have female singers at official events, or when religious speakers are invited to come and speak on the base.

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