Are hardline rabbis really creating private militias in the IDF? - analysis

Avigdor Liberman's comments aroused a storm of protest with several public figures arguing that such academies have produced thousands of excellent soldiers for the IDF.

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July 8, 2019 21:53
Are hardline rabbis really creating private militias in the IDF? - analysis

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his departure, November 14, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Amid Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s current crusade against the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and religious Zionist parties, he also emphasized his apparent concern over the influence of religious pre-military academies on IDF recruits.

He claimed last week that such academies, which prepare young religious men for life in the IDF, are creating “religious, private militias,” and asserted that some students are more obedient to their rabbis in the religious academies than their IDF commanders.

His comments aroused a storm of protest, with several public figures arguing that such academies have produced thousands of excellent soldiers for the IDF.

While this is undoubtedly true, there have also been ongoing concerns about the possibility that religious soldiers would refuse orders in controversial situations, such as the evacuation of settlements in the West Bank, during difficult operational circumstances or other conditions.

So is there any truth to Liberman’s contentious claims that the rabbis of the religious academies – which tend to be associated with the hard-line wing of the religious Zionist community – are creating a private army that may rebel against the military command on religious grounds?

According to Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on the National-Religious community, Liberman’s comments are totally without foundation.

Cohen said that there have been vanishingly few incidents of religious soldiers disobeying orders despite the many hundreds who begin service every year and who populate the officer ranks.

“They listen to their commanders, full stop,” Cohen told The Jerusalem Post. “Do you see rabbis giving orders to soldiers the whole time, and soldiers refusing orders on a regular basis? If these incidents were happening, we would soon hear about it but that’s not the case. We have never seen significant level of order refusal.”

Cohen rejected the notion that graduates of the academies have a permanent and direct open line to their rabbis, and the idea that rabbis of these institutions are constantly calling their former students and telling them what to do during their service.

He added that during the disengagement from Gaza and the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements in 2005, there were some 60 incidents of various kinds of order refusal, but that given the large number of soldiers involved in the operation, this total was a relatively minor phenomenon.

Shmuel Shattach, of the liberally inclined Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization, is of similar mind, but said he does believe that the possibility of other religious soldiers refusing orders in significant numbers in certain circumstances is a cause for concern.
“Graduates of pre-military academies do listen to their officers,” said Shattach. “No one is trying to make militias inside the army, this is just unnecessary scare-mongering for political purposes.”

He said he believed such soldiers would almost always obey military orders even in the case of evacuating settlements, although he conceded that some may ask not to participate in such operations.

Shattach pointed out that the majority of young religious Zionist men who go to pre-military academies are more often from the less religiously stringent, less hard-line sector of the community, and perform full military service outside of a religious framework.
This is why they go to the academies in the first place, to learn how to cope religiously in a non-religious environment.

Such soldiers are therefore less likely to take such a drastic step as to disobey the military hierarchy in favor of their rabbi, said Shattach.

Typically, the more religious men go to the Hesder program, which combines over three years of yeshiva study with under two years of IDF service.

It is some of these IDF soldiers, particularly ones from the more hard-line Hesder yeshivas, who are potentially more likely to disobey orders over settlement evacuation and similar commands.

There have been reports in recent years about hard-line rabbis teaching cadets in the IDF military rabbinate that the army’s open-fire guidelines are too stringent and contravene Jewish law, and that there is greater leeway for harming civilians and children than the IDF open-fire rules allow.

Rabbis from the conservative wing of the religious Zionist community have also strongly opposed the integration of women into all branches of the IDF, especially combat units. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner went so far as to call on religious men not to enlist because of this IDF policy.

The disengagement from Gaza was a massive ideological disappointment and turning point for the conservative wing of the religious Zionist movement, and led its leaders, such as Rabbi Tzvi Tau, to depart from their previous insistence on subservience to the state in all circumstances.

“This situation will explode at some point, and we will see a problem with the soldiers educated in these [hard-line] yeshivas,” said Shattach, adding that such issues could be expressed through a soldier’s disagreement with open-fire regulations, for example.
But equally, it is also possible that the circumstances that would lead to mass disobedience because of religious concerns will never transpire, at least not in the near future.

“If in the future there is an agreement to evacuate some of the large and symbolic settlements, such as Beit El or Eli, then there could be a higher likelihood of religious soldiers refusing orders,” said Dr. Moshe Hellinger, a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on religious Zionist society.

He said that the chances of such disobedience would be reduced if the decision came from a broad national unity government, and would be higher if it came from a narrower coalition without a Jewish majority.

Hellinger also noted that the government and IDF may well decide to deploy units with few religious soldiers to avoid such a situation, in which case there would only be a small minority of soldiers who would outright refuse such orders.

At the same time, a peace agreement with the Palestinians in which settlements would be evacuated looks to be a very distant possibility in the near and medium future.

“Yes, we should be worried about order refusal, but the IDF is very aware of the potential problem and is investing in tackling it,” said Hellinger.

Ultimately, Liberman’s doomsday predictions of an existential threat to the integrity of the IDF from “private, religious militias” appear to be overstated, and the likelihood of mass disobedience improbable.

This does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern. There are plenty of hard-line religious Zionist rabbis who express uncompromising positions on issues facing the IDF, and who do influence religious soldiers.

Their authority over some IDF personnel must continue to be monitored, and checked where necessary, to keep the likelihood of mass disobedience on religious grounds at an absolute minimum.



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