My new column is up at The American Prospect:
Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi stood at a lectern last week wearing the kind of size XXL skullcap that is the social marker of Orthodox settlers, praising an army program that is the pride of Israel’s religious right. He looked slightly bashful. Ashkenazi, Israel’s military chief of staff, lives in a rather boring suburb of Tel Aviv, not a West Bank settlement. He’s not an Orthodox Jew, so he usually doesn’t wear a hat or skullcap, except for formal occasions when he puts on his military beret. As a military man, he’s officially not a politician. Then again, you don’t get appointed to head the Israel Defense Forces without a sharp sense of which way the political winds are blowing.
Before I get into the details, let me note several implications of this incident. It demonstrates, yet again, that when politicians create an alliance between the state and a religious movement, the outcome is lose-lose for both. In the strictly Israeli context, it shows the growing dependence of the army on soldiers and officers from the Orthodox right, whose commitment to implementing democratic decisions is a touch iffy. And a major reason for that dependency (I know this is a terrible surprise) is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.
The bashful general was speaking at a cornerstone-laying ceremony for what’s known as a hesder yeshivah. A yeshivah is a place where people (well, usually men) study Talmud and other Jewish religious texts. Hesder means “arrangement.” The arrangement was born in the mid-1960s, when the Israeli army let students at one yeshivah alternate between stretches of active duty and periods of religious study. While in yeshivah, they were available for immediate call-up. Hesder soldiers had to commit themselves to extra time in the combined program but spent fewer months in active service than other conscripts.
Hesder yeshivot were a compromise designed for religious Zionists, the part of the Orthodox community that supports the existence of a Jewish state (unlike the ultra-Orthodox, who see Zionism as a secular substitute for Judaism and generally exploit loopholes to avoid the universal draft). In a country where combat duty was a key to social status and the secular left dominated the army, the arrangement allowed young Orthodox men to serve in their own companies (later platoons) and avoid social pressure to give up religion. It also let them get in some religious study. The army got a few more combat soldiers with high motivation. It seemed like a safe, small-scale deal. …
The rest is here. Return to South Jerusalem to add your own Rashi and Tosafot.