Maj.-Gen. Zamir needs basic training on Jewish identity

Zamir recently castigated the army's apportioning of Jewish education to the rabbinate as opposed to the Education Corps. Yet Zamir fails to realize that for this country's survival, Jewish identity itself must become a critical military strategy.

Religious haredi IDF soldiers praying 521 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Religious haredi IDF soldiers praying 521 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A report was recently circulated by the former head of the IDF's Manpower Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir, who stepped down a few weeks ago. In the report, Zamir criticized the division of authority between the military Rabbinate and the Education Corps with respect to strengthening soldiers’ Jewish identity.
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Zamir spoke out against what he called religious extremism, claiming that it was preventing the integration of female soldiers into various IDF units. He called to curtail what he termed the growing religiosity of the IDF, and recommended transferring Jewish education matters from the Rabbinate to the Education Corps.
Statements of this kind reveal that even someone like Zamir - who was entrusted with such an important position - can fail to recognize the formula for the success of not only the IDF but of this country; a formula which the educational branch of the military rabbinate, as well as the Hesder soldiers (representing a large portion of the so-called “extreme religious presence” in the Israeli army), proudly endorse.
I am a member of the Harel branch of the Rabbinate of the IDF which offers lectures and presentations on Jewish history and Jewish tradition to all divisions within the Israeli army. We are expected to imbue a sense of pride, ideology and devotion to this land and its people, while taking care to avoid even the slightest hint of religious coercion or political commentary. Harel is surveyed by mentors and critics who ensure that our words and thoughts are comprehensive and insightful without sounding religiously or politically biased
If the army's chief concern is to protect its borders and citizens, as indeed it should be, why is such a division necessary?
Ultimately, the division aims to preserve Jewish - not religious - identity, an essential component in ensuring the Jewish State's survival.
Sadly, despite the fact that the IDF is a Jewish army, there are countless soldiers who cannot name the patriarchs of the Jewish people or the five books of Moses. One might argue that these concerns are religious in nature and since no religious coercion exists in the Israeli army, they remain trivial when compared with the greater task at hand.
However, these same soldiers often have no idea who Ze'ev Jabotinsky was either.
When Jewish soldiers are woefully ignorant of the identity of their founding fathers - both past and present, the task of protecting Israel's borders and citizens becomes all the more challenging. 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 gevura (heroism) and koach (strength). Strength is manifested through brute force and visceral prowess and therefore its definition lies with the physical. Heroism however, is neither exhibited nor restricted by physical dimensions; rather, it is attained through the calculations of the heart and mind as well as the determination of spirit. Heroism is revealed through profound ideology and eternal belief, which is why it can overcome strength even when numbers logically dictate otherwise.
Identifying terrorist groups and countries which threaten Israel's existence is a relatively simple task, and the IDF is experienced enough to know which strategies to employ when dealing with those enemies. Yet there are also variables from within which threaten the very fabric of Israeli society.
Statements such as those made by Mr Zamir demonstrate that he is either unaware of them, or worse, that he has chosen to ignore them. Consider the fact that a disturbing number of Israelis, both young and old, have never even taken the time to visit their country's capital city. Along with its obvious spiritual significance, Jerusalem also represents the nation's rich culture and unique heritage.
Consider also the amount of Israelis who no longer recognize the value of incorporating Bible study into the core curriculum of today's schools. At the very least, they fail to understand the importance of learning the source of our historical connection to our land and people.
Even in the home of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion—not known for his religious sympathies—a tattered copy of the Bible rests on his bedside table. Ben-Gurion read and studied the Bible not out of religious conscription, but because he understood that knowing who we were shapes who we are now and indeed, who we could become.
During Menachem Begin's tenure as prime minister, he required his cabinet ministers to attend a weekly class on the Torah portion in order to learn the story of the Jewish people. Once again, this can hardly be considered religious coercion; rather it was a call for ideological conscription.
Unfortunately, these days, people like Ben Gurion and Begin are few and far between and the fundamentals of the dogmatic hero are slowly dissolving.
This is the war in which we are currently engaged, and as a result we must learn how to arm ourselves properly. Zamir was wrong for criticizing and castigating those who uphold the significance of Jewish identity. He would do wise to heed the words of Rabbi Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF who chastised Zamir following the latter's suggestion to transfer Jewish education matters from the Rabbinate to the Education Corps:
"This is a battle over the image of Israeli society, no less, [and] 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'."
The more we focus on enriching our children and soldiers' knowledge of Jewish heritage, the more they will comprehend what it is they are fighting for. Such an ideal should be welcome in the IDF, regardless if they are espoused by a religious soldier, rabbi or non-observant Jew.
The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a lecturer under the Harel Division for the Rabbanut of the IDF. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.