Training Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir

Zamir is unwise to criticize and castigate a large segment of those serving in the army.

August 22, 2011 21:28
Religious IDF soldiers praying

Religious haredi IDF soldiers praying 521 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Recently a report was circulated by the outgoing head of the personnel directorate in the IDF, Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir, who stepped down a few weeks ago. In the report, Zamir criticized the current division of authority between the Chaplaincy Corps and the Education Corps with respect to strengthening soldiers’ Jewish identity, speaking out against what he called religious extremism, which he claimed was preventing the integration of female soldiers into various IDF units.

Zamir called to curtail what he termed the growing religiosity of the IDF as he recommended transferring Jewish education matters from the Chaplaincy to the Education Corps. Statements and suggestions of this kind unfortunately reveal that even someone like Zamir, who was entrusted with such an important position, has failed to recognize the formula for the success not only of the IDF, but of this country; a formula the educational branch of the Chaplaincy Corps, as well as the hesder soldiers (representing a large portion of the so-called “extreme religious presence” in the army), earnestly embrace and proudly endorse.

I am a member of the Harel branch of the IDF Chaplaincy Corps, which offers lectures and presentations on Jewish history and tradition to all divisions within the army. We are expected to imbue these soldiers with a sense of pride and devotion to our land and people, and infuse them with a passion for ideology, while carefully avoiding even the slightest hint of religious coercion or political commentary. In fact, we are surveyed by mentors and critics who ensure that our words are comprehensive and insightful without sounding religiously or politically biased. We are particularly careful never to threaten or patronize, as should be expected from an army that represents a pluralistic society.

Why is this division necessary within the ranks of the IDF, an army that should concern itself exclusively with protecting its borders and citizens? Because this division preserves Jewish (not religious) identity, an essential component that can ensure the Jewish country’s survival.

THE IDF is a Jewish army, and there are many soldiers who do not know the three forefathers of the Jewish people or who cannot identify the five books of Moses. One might insist that these concerns are religious by nature and, as there is no religious coercion in the IDF, they are trivial in comparison to the greater task at hand, but the problem is that these same soldiers have no clue who Ze’ev Jabotinsky is, either. When Jewish soldiers are unaware of who the founding fathers were, it is difficult to protect the country’s borders and citizens; for the knowledge of our past advances the resilience of our future.

During one of our lecture campaigns, I was asked to speak to combat divisions on the theme of gevura (heroism). I approached the subject by first demonstrating to the soldiers that there is a definitive difference between heroism and koah (strength). Strength is identified by physical proportions and revealed through brute force. Heroism, however, is not restricted by, nor exhibited through, physical dimensions; it is attained through the calculations of the heart and mind as well as the determination of spirit. Heroism reveals itself through profound ideology and eternal belief, which is why it can overcome strength even when numbers would logically dictate otherwise.

I explained to our soldiers that it is unfortunately simple for us to identify the many countries and terrorist forces that threaten our very existence, yet there are variables within our own society that tear at the fabric of our public. Zamir’s statements demonstrate either that he is unaware of these variables, or even worse, that he has chosen to ignore them.

Consider the number of Israelis, young and old, who have never been to Jerusalem (I meet them frequently) or rarely take the time to visit our capital city, which has always represented our affiliation with a rich culture and unique heritage. Consider the number of Israelis who no longer recognize the value of incorporating the study of our Bible as part of the core curriculum in schools today, failing to comprehend the source of our historical connection to our land and people.

If this sounds like religious coercion, then please consider the following: Upon visiting David Ben- Gurion’s home in Sde Boker, you can’t help but notice the Bible on his bedside table, its tattered and worn pages demonstrative of the fact that Ben-Gurion, hardly sympathetic to religion, read and used the book. The former prime minister did not do so out of religious conscription; he read and studied the Bible because he appreciated the significance of knowing who we were in order to identify what we could become.

When Menachem Begin served as prime minister, he required his cabinet ministers to attend a weekly class on the Torah portion because he wanted his ministers to understand the story of the Jewish people’s past and to appreciate the foundations of its future. This was hardly religious coercion; rather, it was a call for ideological conscription.

UNFORTUNATELY TODAY, people like Ben-Gurion and Begin are few and far between. This is the main war in which we are engaged, and these are the significant battles we must fight.

Zamir is unwise to criticize and castigate a large segment of those serving in the army, who, perhaps assisted by the fact that they are religious, can identify their forefathers’ passions and facilitate their ancestors’ dreams. He should listen to the former chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Avihai Ronsky, who, after hearing this suggestion to transfer Jewish education matters from the Chaplaincy Corps to the Education Corps, responded by saying, “This is a battle over the image of Israeli society; no less, the question is whether it will have the image of a Jewish national army – and I’m not referring to religion – which stresses Jewish history, the Bible, and other connections with religion, or whether it will be an army of a ‘people’s state.’” With the escalation of terror attacks in the Negev, it is vital during this challenging time that we recognize that the more we enrich our children and soldiers with Jewish heritage, the more they will comprehend what they are fighting for; such ideals should be welcome in the IDF regardless of whether they are espoused by a religious soldier, a rabbi or a non-observant Jew.

The writer teaches at the Kiryat Gat hesder yeshiva and serves as a lecturer under the Harel Division for the IDF Chaplaincy Corps. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, religious Zionism and Jewish education.

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