“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).