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The Culture of War
By Martin Van Creveld
Military historian Martin van Creveld argues in his book The Culture of War that Jews are "men without chests." In a chapter in his book with the same title van Creveld blames Israel's failure in the Second Lebanon War on a lack of Jewish military culture.
The Jewish people, says van Creveld, was once proud of war heroes such as Joshua, King David and the Maccabees. But over the long years wandering among the nations without a land of their own and devoid of military might, Jews have developed an ethos that emphasizes spiritual fortitude and disdains acts of physical heroism. Starting with Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), the exiled Jewish people abandoned military resistance against the Roman Empire and opted instead for religious adherence and scholarship. Dispersed throughout the nations, the Jewish people's chosen method of survival was transferred from the battlefield to the spiritual realm. Courage in war was translated into the faithful fortitude needed to maintain Jewish traditions against the dangers of assimilation and intermarriage. Religious texts became a portable homeland.
This transition from adroit militarism to bookish parochialism was not always of Jews' free will. For instance, there is evidence, points out van Creveld, that Jews served as soldiers in the Roman army in the first centuries of the first millennium until they were expelled by the Christian emperor Theodosius II in 410-439 CE. Long centuries followed during which Jews lived under foreign sovereignty stripped of all military means.
When the 19th century came around and peoples began organizing themselves into modern nation-states with their own unique histories that were inexorably tied to a land that carried with it tales of conquest and acts of courage on the battlefield, the Jews were left out.
"While others had fought and bled they had been confined to the overcrowded, filthy ghettos," writes van Creveld.
Attempts to revive Israel's ancient martial culture were only partially successful. Ze'ev Jabotinsky's novel Samson transformed the biblical figure into a heroic champion of Jewish honor. Secular Zionism called to create a "new Jew" without all the neuroses of the exile. Modern archeology, under the direction of the Ben-Gurion state, unearthed and utilized sites such as Masada that emphasized unrelenting courage and refusal to capitulate, even if it meant mass suicide.
Still, these contemporary attempts to reconstruct a Jewish military culture never really took root, claims van Creveld.
But as long as Jews fought wars of no choice, they scraped together enough acumen to fight for their lives. A lack of a developed military culture did not hurt so much since there was not a lot of time for reflection in most of Israel's first confrontations. In the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, tiny Israel was pitted against the combined armies of the Arab world which threatened to utterly obliterate the Jewish state. We were a David fighting a mighty Goliath.
But after the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, there was a sea change in the type of wars that Israel was forced to fight. Gradually it was Israel's enemies, not the Jewish state, who were claiming underdog status. Palestinians based in Lebanon and Jordan or in Judea and Samaria could claim to be freedom fighters striving to obtain a homeland. And they were up against one of the world's most powerful military forces.
Rockets shot from Lebanon or Gaza and terrorist attacks or suicide bombings wreaked havoc and demoralized Israeli society. But they never represented a serious existential danger to the State of Israel.
In this reality the Jewish nation had difficulty coping. Attempts by the IDF to assert itself were criticized as "militarism." On the other hand military restraint was perceived as a sorrowful symptom of the Jews' "exile complex."
Without a solid culture of war to fall back on, argues van Creveld, Israel was in a constant state of vacillation between the open use of force and a racking self-doubt regarding its justification for waging a war that, like all wars, cannot differentiate between innocent and guilty and endangers some of our most talented young men.
The conclusion proposed by van Creveld in the wake of Israel's military failures in Lebanon is ominous. "Thus the Jewish-Zionist-Israeli experience provides an object lesson concerning what has happened, and may still happen, to a people who, for one reason or another, have lost touch with their culture of war."
However, van Creveld ignores a religio-cultural phenomenon that has had a major impact on the IDF in recent years: the rise of religious Zionist military theology. In the past two decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of religious Zionist young men serving as officers and members of elite combat units. Dozens of hesder yeshivot and pre-military yeshiva academies have been educating their students to look at IDF service as a religious duty. Although there are no accurate figures for the percentage of religious soldiers serving in combat units, in recent graduation ceremonies for combat officers there have been conspicuously high numbers of young men with crocheted kippot on their heads. Rough estimates say about a third of the class is religious compared to about 10 percent of the total.
This rise in the number of religious Zionists filling the ranks of the IDF's most key combat positions is all the more striking as it comes at a time when the Zionist ethos of selfless service to the state has been reexamined on the backdrop of post-modernist, post-Zionist trends. In part, this phenomenon can be attributed to the success of religious Zionism in formulating a coherent educational and cultural message and transmitting it to young men in the years preceding mandatory military service as well as during regular service.
A Double-Edged Sword
By Eli Holzer
In his book A Double-Edged Sword: Military Activism in the Thought of Religious Zionism, Eli Holzer investigates the theological and philosophical roots of religious Zionism's military activism as elucidated in the writings of leading religious Zionist thinkers.
In the first part of his book Holzer conducts a thorough analysis of the writings of Rabbis Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Yitzhak Ya'acov Reines, the two founding fathers of religious Zionism who both died before the creation of the State of Israel, as well as two lesser known thinkers - Rabbis Aharon Shmuel Timeret and Moshe Avigdor Amiel - who also did not live to see the Jewish state. He reaches the conclusion that all four were basically pacifists who envisioned a Jewish state that would go beyond warfare to present a new, morally superior model of the nation-state that would be a "light unto the nations."
In the second part of the book, Holzer charts the ideological innovations of Kook's son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, the spiritual father of the Gush Emunim movement and probably the single most influential spiritual leader of contemporary religious Zionism. Zvi Yehuda and his many students sanctified the use of military force as part of a God-driven redemption process. Israel's wars should not be seen solely as acts of self-defense or a utilitarian means of protecting the Jewish nation's interests; rather they are a heavenly sign that all of humanity is progressing toward the messianic era. The very fact that the Jewish people have the ability to fight their own wars represents a more perfect spiritual reality in which God's will is more fully expressed in this world. Israel's wars with its enemies are a cosmic battle of light against darkness.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Holzer's book for the understanding of contemporary religious Zionism's approach to army service and warfare. Holzer skillfully plumbs the depths of Avraham Kook's difficult writings, known for their impenetrability, culling references to military activism. Kook's thought is placed within a philosophical context, while taking into consideration foreign influences such as Hegel or nationalist Romantic thinkers of the 19th century.
Kook-the-father's thought is then contrasted with that of his son and his son's many students. Living during World War I, the elder Kook saw warfare among the nations of Europe as a sign of the awaking of messianic currents that would lead eventually to the creation of a Jewish state which would present an alternative, sublime political reality that did not include the use of military force. In contrast, the younger Kook is confronted with a reality in which Israel successfully conquers numerous biblical sites during the Six Day War, leading to the conclusion that Jewish warfare is a means of bringing closer the redemption.
As Holzer points out, while the younger Kook maintains his father's clear distinction between the morally superior Jewish state as opposed to the inferior moral status of the nations of the world, his thought is influenced by the military reality of his time. It is not the wars of the nations that mark humanity's entry into the messianic era, rather it is Israel's wars. The Jewish people's wars are part of a redemption process and an expression of the Jews' moral ideal. Jewish warfare becomes a means of destroying the evil and revealing "true" morality.
World war was seen by the elder Kook as the "death gasp" of European culture that would lead to the recognition of the superior moral/cultural option offered by the exiled, powerless but spiritually refined Jewish people as a nation without military or political means. For Kook the son and his students, the focus is on Jewish war as a means of radically transforming the Jewish people from a passive, disparaged mass of weaklings into a proud nation. The State of Israel will not necessarily use its military to force other nations to accept its moral superiority, but Israel's ability to defend itself will make it easier for other nations to heed the Jewish people's moral message, coming as it does from a spunky fighter with self-respect.
However, Holzer, who focuses on exploring the theoretical aspects of religious Zionism's thought, is careful not to conjecture on the extent to which the younger Kook and his students have had an impact on the way the contemporary religious Zionist community views warfare and IDF service. Nor does he speculate on how religious Zionist military theology has had an impact on the IDF as a whole.
Israel and its Army
By Stuart A. Cohen
In Israel and Its Army: From Cohesion to Confusion, a macro view of the IDF from its conception to the present day, Stuart Cohen, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, deals, among other issues, with the integration of religious soldiers in the IDF.
Cohen points out that in the first decades after the establishment of the state, military service was a type of melting pot in which religious and secular soldiers became acquainted with one another and were influenced by each other.
However, in recent decades religious soldiers have adopted a more segregationist approach to military service. Religious soldiers often stick together in the IDF and do not mingle with secular soldiers. Part of the explanation for this trend is the rise in the popularity of hesder yeshivot and pre-military yeshiva academies among religious high school graduates. More religious young men are spending at least a year before their mandatory military service preparing themselves religiously and ideologically. This preparation gives them a stronger sense of purpose, which often contributes to their success in the IDF. But at the same time these institutions tend to enhance differences between religious and secular soldiers.
Cohen does not say so, but perhaps one of the main differences between religious and secular soldiers is how they view their military service. While secular soldiers see their service primarily as the duty of a faithful citizen to his or her state, the religious soldier tends to see military service as a religious obligation - a mitzva. The IDF is responsible for protecting the Jewish people and maintaining a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
But what happens if the IDF is saddled with a task that seems to contradict a soldier's religious convictions? Basing himself on the reactions of religious Zionist soldiers to IDF orders to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005, Cohen reaches the conclusion that religiously motivated conscientious objection, "very much like its left-wing brand, is a decidedly minority opinion."
If Cohen is correct, it appears that religious Zionism has succeeded in developing a uniquely Jewish war culture that can be safely integrated into the IDF. This culture might not necessarily be shared by the majority of IDF soldiers. But it appears to prove that there is nothing inherently "wimpy" about Jewish culture. Courage on the battlefield can also be kosher.
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