Analysis: 'Religious radicalism in IDF no concern'

Brigade commander says religion not a determining factor in appointments; soldiers judged according to way they fight, leadership.

IDF soldiers march with flag 300 (photo credit: REUTERS/Dan Bronfeld)
IDF soldiers march with flag 300
(photo credit: REUTERS/Dan Bronfeld)
Is the IDF being taken over by radical religious extremists? Like most things in the military, it depends whom you ask.
On Monday, Haaretz reported that 19 former IDF major-generals have sent a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning against giving in to religious demands to prevent the mixing of men and women in the army.
RELATED:Rabbis differ over women singing in army “We believe that it is the military’s obligation to protect the rights of all people who serve in its ranks, and that joint service by women and men... is a cornerstone of its character as the people’s army,” the generals wrote.
Publication of the letter comes against the backdrop of a broader debate within Israel regarding the role religion should play in the military.
Traditionally, the rights of religious soldiers were looked after in a secular-dominated army, but in recent years, the ranks – particularly in combat brigades – are being filled by national-religious soldiers, leading to growing tension in some units where women also serve.
In recent months, the IDF has had to grapple with a number of cases when religious soldiers walked out of military ceremonies since female soldiers were singing.
In other cases, soldiers refused to participate in training with female instructors, and two female soldiers were transferred after the Artillery Corps assigned a group of religious soldiers to their unit.
The growing media focus on the story has forced Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz to order the Manpower Directorate to conduct a thorough review of the integration of women in the IDF.
“This is an issue that needs clarification, and until Gantz sets new guidelines the situation will likely get worse,” one officer explained.
The prominence of Orthodox officers in the army has been growing in recent years. In the Golani Brigade, for example, the brigade commander, a colonel, is religious, and out of the seven lieutenant-colonels, all but one are religious.
In the Paratroop Brigade, the situation is vastly different. There, the brigade commander and all but one of the lieutenant-colonels are secular, although all of the deputy battalion commanders – who can be called “battalion commanders to be” – are mostly Orthodox.
Nevertheless, brigade commanders in the IDF are generally dismissive of the claims that the army is undergoing religious radicalization.
Two brigade commanders, in conversations with The Jerusalem Post, said that they believed the phenomenon was marginal and was not indicative of the general religious population in the IDF.
“These appear to be isolated cases,” one brigade commander said last week. “People have to be smart, and that includes rabbis who are educating these soldiers, and commanders who are in charge of them. We have to know what we can do and what we can’t do.”
Another brigade commander said that he did not look under the helmets of his subordinates when considering them for promotions and appointments.
“Soldiers need to be judged according to the way they fight and how they are as leaders,” the brigade commander said.
While the relationship between Orthodox and female soldiers will continue to be examined, the IDF is looking to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers it recruits. There are currently about 2,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the army, in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion – also known as Nahal Haredi – and in technical positions in the air force, the C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and (military) intelligence) Directorate and Military Intelligence.
That number is expected to grow over the coming year, with plans by Military Intelligence, for example, to reach 1,000 ultra- Orthodox recruits as programmers and computer specialists. The funding for the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox soldiers is provided by the Treasury and is independent of the IDF’s budget.