by Lily Hoffman Simon
The Israeli Defense Force is often viewed as a reflection of Israeli ideologies, and of the Jewish state in general. This conception is slightly problematic, as the IDF operates primarily outside the realm of democratic processes. However, it is interesting to consider how recent increases in religious military participation have changed the IDF and the face of Zionism.
In the past few months, religious membership in the IDF has been a hot topic, as the Knesset has discussed the halachic legitimacy of conversions officiated by the IDF. This past week, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the religious party Shas, approved these kinds of conversions as valid. Much of the motivation behind the controversial bill, which proposed to give legal status to all IDF-performed conversions, was to promote Jewish presence in the IDF. According to MK David Rotem of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, who introduced the bill, “no one will want to convert during his military service anymore [if IDF conversions are not legitimate], and we will find ourselves in a big problem.”
The Israeli Defense Force is an extension of the Israeli state, and in that light is an extension of the Jewish people. However, this relationship is more complicated than that. In an effort to simplify slightly, let’s ignore the complicated discussion of to what degree Israel reflects the Jewish people, or if there is even a singular Jewish people to represent. The topic at hand is how participation in the IDF reflects different Jewish and Zionist ideologies, and how that reflects on Israel as a whole. The increase in religious participation in the IDF reflects certain nationalist beliefs. These beliefs tend to favor the right wing of the political spectrum, including the transformation of the recent Gaza war into a spiritual battle representing the dominance of Jews (in the extremes). Religious beliefs are permeating into the IDF outside of the battlefield as well. Examples of this include the opposition of the chief rabbi of the IDF to women’s participation in combat units.
The religious influence on the army has some positive effects. For example, the recent adaptations to enable Haredi participation in the IDF have brought traditionally civilly-disengaged citizens into civic service, and therefore national consciousness. However, religious influence and power in the IDF has many negative consequences. First, the integration of religious belief into the army, as well as the emphasis put on rabbinic approval of the IDF, is transforming the secular IDF into an institution for religious militancy, undermining the IDF as a secular institution seeking to embody the democratic state. In addition, religious soldiers are inclined to act according to religious Zionist beliefs. In practice, this could mean, for example, a refusal to fulfill orders to evacuate West Bank settlements. With a growing number of religious soldiers, the IDF increasingly reflects militant religious Zionist ideologies, which encourage expansion of Israel, as well as Jewish strength. As a result, international communities are more inclined to define the IDF, and Israel in general, as a militant force, concerned with expanding Jewish settlement and concerned with the strength of the Jewish people above all else. This raises the question of the role of nationalism in the IDF. Is nationalist fervor and ideology an inherent part of the Israeli army, or should military nationalist tendencies be solely in defense of the nation?
With a need for an Israeli army, it is also important to remember the need for soldiers within that army from all kinds of Israeli identity. This is especially important in a society with a military draft, suggesting that the IDF serves as a space for civil engagement with other Israelis. However, it is crucial to constantly analyze how different soldiers and influences in the IDF affect its functioning and legitimacy.