Nahal Haredi began with thirty men. The IDF held true enough to its promise to protect religious sensibilities that, by 2010, the unit had 1,000 men. In May 2010, when the IDF Manpower Directorate announced that IDF recruitment had a shortfall of 10,000 men, they stated that efforts should be made to increase recruitment of Haredi youth. In January 2011, the Israeli Cabinet did exactly that: it authorized a plan to increase dramatically Haredi recruiting.
It may be possible to say that recruiting Haredi for the IDF had become government policy.
However, by the time this increase was authorized, it was already in trouble. Yes, the Prime Minister and then-IDF Chief of General Staff (COS) Gabi Ashkenazi publicly praised both Haredi and other religious populations in the IDF; but there were some inside the IDF who were already working against them. First, Paratroopers Brigade Commander Colonel Aharon Haliva had expressed ‘hatred’ for the Hesder Yeshiva program, a successful effort specifically designed to do what the army wanted to do--bring religious youth into the IDF. Haliva also denigrated the personal values of the religious in the army.
Weeks later, Colonel Eran Niv, the newly appointed commander of the IDF officer training program called Bahad 1, was characterized in an Haaretz story as one among several who worked to ‘return’ secular values to IDF field command, because thousands of highly motivated religious soldiers (and hundreds of like-minded religious officers) had begun to 'change' the army. To help promote this secular re-focusing, groups were formed to create ‘secular Sabbaths’ that would not focus on ‘Sabbath’, but on secular values embedded in the topic, ‘the army in a democracy’. Colonel Niv was identified as one who recognized the specific need to ‘train’ Orthodox officers to learn secular values. All officer cadets in Bahad 1 would attend 10 ‘secular Sabbath’ programs as part of their training.
In the same month the government was committing itself to recruiting the ultra-religious, the army seemed to be committing to indoctrinate religious officer candidates with secular values, a decision that the religious could consider offensive. Was the army at odds with government policy?
Then, in September 2011, several officer cadets at Bahad 1, including at least one from Nahal Haredi, were expelled from Bahad 1 because they refused to remain at a remembrance ceremony to listen to a woman sing, something their religious sensibility did not allow. You may have your own opinion about this particular sensibility, but in the past, the IDF had in fact allowed soldiers to absent themselves when a woman sang. This time, however, for reasons still unclear, the soldiers were not granted that permission. Despite the understanding that their religious beliefs (particularly regarding women) would be respected, these religious cadets were ordered to stay at the ceremony—and when they didn’t, they were expelled because, as General Niv later declared, their duty is to obey orders.
As if to emphasize this anti-religious animus, 19 retired Generals sent a letter in November 2011 to COS General Benny Gantz essentially denouncing the religious in the army.
If the point of the Cabinet decision in January 2011 (the month before Gantz’ appointment) was to enhance religious recruiting, this chain of events does not pass the smell test. Indeed, independent of the Cabinet’s pro-religious decision, the army’s behaviour suggests a certain hypocrisy: seculars in the army seemed to have no problem indoctrinating religious officer candidates with secular ideas; can you imagine how they would scream if the army required secular officer candidates to be indoctrinated into ‘religion’?
As a result of the expulsions--and the IDF’s apparent refusal to reinstate the agreement to honour religious sensibilities--more than one Rabbi has now offered disapproving comments of the IDF. With this expulsion, the IDF seems to have betrayed its promises to the religious; religious leaders now consider not recommending army service, for obvious reasons.
Curiously, on Nov 21, 2011, General Gantz declared with some anger that, ‘there’s no room for banning women singing’ in the IDF. This was a curious statement indeed because banning women singing was never the issue. The issue is the sensibilities of certain religious soldiers who, before General Gantz became COS, had not been expelled for leaving a ceremony when a woman sang.
Could there be a connection between General Gantz’ appointment as COS and this apparent sea change towards the religious in the IDF?
Gantz’ anger is misplaced—and dangerous. Enlistment rates among the non-religious are dropping while the religious are willing to enlist—if their sensibilities are protected. Some older programs (Hesder, for example) suggest that the army had understood this. But now, just as the IDF has a serious manpower shortfall, there appears to be an invigorated anti-religious cabal working to coerce, indoctrinate and expel the very soldiers the government has explicitly chosen to seek. If General Gantz allows the IDF to renege on its promises by allowing secularists to drive away (or expel) the religious, then he allows politicized seculars to undermine both IDF readiness and government authority.
Gantz works for the government. All in the chain of command are required to obey him—just as he is required to obey the government. He should recall the expelled cadets and discipline the secularists. Perhaps those officers should be fired. Of course, if Gantz agrees with the secularists, then he should be fired himself—because his duty is to obey orders, not allow subordinates to subvert the Cabinet’s will.
Subverting the government is not how a democracy survives.