“It’s no coincidence that men with knitted skullcaps—two of them soldiers—were involved in killing the terrorists who carried out the last three terror attacks,” Nadav Shragai writes in today’s Ha’aretz. Shragai, who himself hails from the mainstream of Isareli religious Zionism, is right to be proud, but he doesn’t tell the whole story.
The kipah (why does Ha’aretz insist on using the ugly term “skullcap?”) and the rifle weren’t compatible in classic Zionism. The Palmach ethos pretty much excluded religion. The authors of soldier memoirs from the pre-state period through the 1970s almost always express surprise when the occasional religious guy shows up in their special forces unit, and the religious guy almost never made it through the rigorous selection process. In the mindset of most of the IDF’s early commanders, being religious meant being weak, and time spent observing the mitzvot was time wasted.
The settlement movement, which I think has been a catastrophe for Israel, nevertheless played a role in an important and positive sociological process in Israeli society—it brought the modern religious population into the mainstream. In a society in which so much revolves around the army, military service, and in particular service in elite units, is the key to larger social acceptance. From the 1970s onward, young religious men increasingly sought service in such units and, overcoming no little prejudice, proved their worth and their ability. This process was an important one for creating a more tolerant, open, and multicultural Israeli society (notably, many of these young religious men were Sephardim).
At the same time, the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip became central to the knitted-kipah ethos. Many members of the community’s young generation grew up in the settlements, and many of those who didn’t attended one of the high school or hesder yeshivot that were established in the settlements. Carrying a gun became common practice. The gun was a statement of masculinity, of course, but it was also a real need, since traveling to and among the settlements meant traveling through hostile territory. The settlers suffered a good measure of messianic paranoia, but they also had real enemies.
The fact that they lived close to danger and had to be ready to use their weapons if necessary made them the sociological heirs of the Palmachnikim, and of the kibbutznikim who lived on Israel’s borders. In a country with real enemies, attacked by terrorists who target the civilian population, it’s important to have armed civilians who are able and ready to use their guns in emergencies like the two bulldozer attacks in Jerusalem and the shooting spree at the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva.
The part that Shragai neglects to tell is that religious Zionists with guns have often used their weapons not to save lives but to cause unnecessary death. Some, like Yoram Skolnik, killed an armed terrorist after he’d already been captured and subdued. Others, like Baruch Goldstein and members of the Jewish Underground of the 1980s, murdered Arabs in shooting sprees. And Yigal Amir aimed his gun at a Jew.
The three guys with the kipot who helped stop and kill the terrorists in these three recent attacks in Jerusalem are indeed heroes. We should admire their bravery, their quick response, their good aim. We need people like them, and Shragai’s right that it’s not a coincidence that all three came from the religious Zionist community. But we need to remember it’s these men that we praise, no every combination of the kipah and the gun.