The overwhelming majority of officers who attended the Annual Conference of High Officers in the Israeli army convened recently, are religious Zionists. Former director of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence Shlomo Gazit considers the photos of religious high-ranking generals on Israeli TV as they were moving around in the conference room wearing their colourful kippahs as an 'indication that the Israeli army has fallen into the grip of religious Zionists.'
Religious Zionists constitute only eight per cent of the overall Jewish population in Israel, whereas ultra-orthodox Jews represent 22 per cent and the majority of them do not join the army as those among them who study full time in Jewish seminaries are exempt from serving in Israel's military. The major area of inconsistency and conflict between religious Zionists and Ultra-orthodox Jews revolves around the justifications for the establishment of the State of Israel. Ultra-orthodox Jews object to the establishment of Israel, adhering to their spiritual leaders' belief in the coming of the Messiah prior to the establishment of a state for the Jews while religious Zionists hold that the establishment of the state is a precondition for the coming of the Messiah and not vice versa.
Based on data released in 2008 by the IDF's human resources department, 60 per cent of officers in the Israeli army are followers of religious Zionism. The figures are even higher in the infantry brigades where they amount to 70 per cent, reaching 75 per cent in the special fighting units. Former commander of the northern part of the West Bank in the Israeli army Moshe Kaplinsky anticipates full control by religious Zionists of the chief of staff within two decades if they continue to scramble for the leading positions in this way.
Motives of joining fighting units
The spiritual religious leadership of Israel's religious Zionism encourages its followers to join selected brigades and special military units. Leading rabbis of the Zionist religious tendency insist that this orientation is aimed at bringing the army under their control as an important gateway to their manipulation of the policy making process disproportionately to its size compared to other trends. The leader of this current Rabbi Ibrahim Shabir did not refrain from issuing in the mid eighties a "fatwa" considering 'enrolling in fighting units akin to God' and that 'military service and fighting spirit are a task imposed by God in order to take the leadership of the Zionist project".'
Glasshouses of terrorism
The religious Zionist leadership managed to make a deal with the army leadership that would provide for the establishment of special religious military schools where religious soldiers and officers continue their religious studies while doing their military service. Forty-two schools of this type have been opened so far.
Although these institutes are fully funded by the army which pays salaries to their heads among rabbis, they are totally dominated by the Zionist religious current. It is worth noting that the curriculum used by these schools is racist and prepares the soldiers to be more daring in killing Arabs.
For instance, the "fatwas" (religious injunctions) and various interpretations issued by key Zionist religious authorities constitute the major subjects taught in these schools. Rabbi Samuel Rusim, head of religious military school in Ma'aleh Adumim, states that he teaches his students (soldiers and officers) the fatwa that was issued two years ago by Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu who inherited the leadership of religious Zionism that the fate of the Amalek must be implemented on Palestinians.
According to this verdict, God commands Prophet Joshua ( Yusha' Bin Nun) to exterminate the Amalek tribe living in Palestine completely, including men, women, children and livestock. In his widely spread Fatwa, Eliyahu believes that what was then applied to the Amalek must be applied to the Palestinians being the 'Amalek of this age.'
The Gaza war as an example
Ha'aretz revealed that the military rabbinate distributed to religious soldiers in the IDF a fatwa issued by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the Rosh yeshiva of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem and the rabbi of Bet El inciting the murder of Palestinians. Meanwhile military rabbi and former Brigadier General Avi Ronski distributed pamphlets to Israeli troops sanctioning the killing of Palestinians. "Kill them all", he said highlighting that they were not civilians. Ronski was keen to take with him the most extremist rabbis to mobilize soldiers and incite the killing of more Palestinians.
Israeli journalist Amos Hariel reported a soldier who participated in the war on Gaza as saying that rabbi Shaul Eliyahu (the official rabbi of the city of Safed) preached sermons to soldiers urging 'no mercy' in killing of Gazans.
A guarantee to the continuation of the conflict
The religious Zionist tendency encourages its followers to take control of the leading positions in the army and the military institution and affect decision making. Although the government as a representative of the political machinery is the decision maker, norms of governance in Israel provide that the political issues refer to military and security institutions before taking any important decision, which has allowed the military institution to exert a huge amount of influence on the policy -making process in Israel, so much so that former US ambassador to Tel Aviv, Kurtzer once said that the head of the 'Shabak is the actual governor of Israel.' It is absolutely clear that if religious Zionists continue to assume high ranking positions in the military institution, the advice they provide to the political institution will depend to a large extent on their religious attitudes.
Damage to democracy
It is clear that the dominance by religious Zionists of the military institution has profound effects on the nature of politics in Israel and will lead to the erosion of democracy. If an important principle of democracy provides that military leaders be subordinate to decisions by the elected government, students of religious Zionism believe that the teachings of the Torah matter before anything else including instructions by the elected government of Israel.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al Jazeera
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.