A discussion about whether religious observance is being forced on soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces became particularly heated in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on Manpower and Training on Monday.
The arguing actually started even before the meeting officially got underway, with MK Yoni Chetboun (Bayit Yehudi) protesting the wording of its topic, which employed a Hebrew term that he felt implied a religious takeover, but was explained by Dr. Reuven Gal, a researcher on religion in the IDF, to in fact translate to “religionization” with no negative connotations.
As reported by the Jerusalem Post, Subcommittee on Manpower and Training chairman Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) led the conversation analyzing concerns that religious matters are changing the IDF’s character.
Bar-Lev stated that he had called the meeting after two incidents that occurred during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza this past summer. In one incident, Givati Commander Col. Ofer Winter sent a letter of encouragement to his troops that was filled with religious overtones and Torah references, while in the other incident, Golani soldiers in the process of leaving the South were taken to the Western Wall, where they chanted “Gomel,” the blessing one says after surviving a life-endangering situation.
“These aren’t extreme actions. The paratroopers all go to the Kotel, even if they’re not religious,” MK Motti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) noted in regard to the latter incident.
OC Manpower Directorate Brig.-Gen. Gadi Agmon maintained that nothing is being done in the IDF that could be construed as “religionization,” and that the IDF ensures there is equality for all and loyalty to the state, while integrating different population groups, to continue its status as “the people’s army.”
“There are clear orders on the topic. No one is required to attend religious services in the IDF,” Agmon declared. “There is no religious coercion and every soldier has the right to decide if he wants to take part in a religious event.”
In terms of Winter’s letter, Agmon said that every commander can write letters in accordance with his values and worldview, even if it includes Biblical references.
Bar-Lev accused Agmon and religious Knesset members on the committee of feigning innocence, and that the behavior exhibited by Winter and the Golani officer is “outside of the acceptable norms in the IDF, which raises question marks.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it if the soldiers were given a choice,” MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who is Orthodox, responded to Bar-Lev. “The IDF isn’t the same as it was when you were there; 40 percent of officers’ course cadets are religious.”
However, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said that he received many complaints from IDF soldiers who claimed to have faced religious coercion.
In contrast to that contention, a representative from the Soldiers’ Ombudsman’s Office said that during Operation Protective Edge he received six complaints related to religion, all of which were in fact from religious soldiers who felt their commanders were not allowing them to have a religious lifestyle.
Chetboun responded that the numbers reflect the unvarnished truth, and there is no religious coercion of any type in the IDF.
Gal said concern about religionization of the IDF stems from the possibility of soldiers deferring to rabbinical authority over military commands.
“When Turkey was more secular, if any soldier said anything religious he was dismissed, because he was following an authority other than his commander. In Iran, everything is run religiously,” Gal stated.
Chetboun contended that Gal and other researchers are “trying to destroy the last nature reserve in which the different parts of Israeli society work together in dedication to their homeland.”
“The IDF is showing the numbers and saying this phenomenon doesn’t exist, but some researchers and MKs refuse to believe it. They’re obsessively trying to destroy what unites us as one Israeli Zionist society,” Chetboun concluded.