Educating the troops

Strengthening the Israeli and Jewish identity of its soldiers should continue to be a central goal of the IDF.

Haredi combat soldiers 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi combat soldiers 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Young men and women with strong Israeli and Jewish identities make better IDF soldiers. This self-evident axiom has been backed up by a recently published Education Corps survey.
The survey – conducted between December 2008 and March 2009 and published in the latest edition of the IDF journal Ma’arachot – found that soldiers who excelled during their military stint tend to attach high levels of importance to their Israeli and Jewish identities.
A whopping 94 percent of officers from the cadet level up to the rank of lieutenant-colonel said their Israeli identity was “important” or “very important.”
Only a slightly lower proportion – 82% – viewed their Jewish identity as “important” or “very important.”
And what the officers overwhelmingly meant when they referred to “Jewish identity” was “the Jewish religion and its customs,” and not the fuzzier definition of Jewish identity as “culture” or “nationality.”
Undoubtedly, most of the men and women who excel in the IDF arrive with strong Israeli and Jewish identities. Upbringing, schooling, youth groups and the growth of pre-military academies for both religious and secular men and women all help to build strong Israeli and Jewish identity.
But the Education Corps and the Chaplaincy Corps also have central roles to play in strengthening soldiers’ Jewish and Israeli identities during the years they spend in the military.
Unfortunately, in recent years there has been rising criticism – particularly from the extreme Left – of attempts within the IDF to strengthen Israeli and Jewish identity. The Chaplaincy Corps has been singled out for censure for overstepping its bounds by using the Bible and other religious texts to support militancy. And even the Education Corps has come under fire for allowing “right-wing” organizations to participate in educational programs offered to soldiers.
Indeed, the IDF must strive to be sensitive to the fact that it is made up of men and women from diverse backgrounds, including non-Jews from the Druse, Beduin, Christian and Circassian communities as well as thousands of Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha but who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return because they were related to Jews.
But it is absurd to expect the IDF – the military arm of a state that declares itself to be “Jewish and democratic” – to be devoid of positive values. How can a soldier be expected to fight, and if necessary give his or her life, to protect the Jewish state if he or she does not fully appreciate the ties – religious, historical, cultural – that connect the Jewish people to one another and to this particular sliver of contested land that is called Israel? And how can we expect non-Jewish minorities serving in the IDF to make similar sacrifices unless they are convinced of the Jewish people’s conviction and sense of purpose? Messages need not be simplistically black and white. Soldiers are – and should be – taken to Tel Hai to discuss the “myth” of Joseph Trumpeldor’s dying words (“Never mind, it is good to die for our country”) and whether or not soldiers can fully identify with Trumpeldor’s statement (if he really said it).
Trips to Jerusalem should – and do – emphasize for soldiers the Jewish people’s ties to the city and help them to understand attempts by contemporary Jewish organizations to strengthen the Jewish presence there while at the same time appreciating that Jerusalem is important to Muslims and Christians.
And soldiers should also grapple with the different – and even contradictory – visions of a Jewish state represented by Jerusalem on the one hand and Tel Aviv on the other.
Strengthening the Israeli and Jewish identity of its soldiers should continue to be a central goal of the IDF. Battles are won not solely due to superior fire power. They are won in minds and hearts.