Beware the Military-Religious Complex

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

12 thoughts on “Beware the Military-Religious Complex”

  1. I think your analysis of the strategic problem is correct. I did notice an interesting double standard in your article, though. The national-religious “commitment to implementing democratic decisions is a touch iffy.” OK. But then you say that the 1967 occupation increases the need for “combat soldiers and officers who aren’t ambivalent about the job.” In other words, the problem is caused by the 1967 occupation together with the ambivalent soldiers, on the left, whose commitment to implementing democratic decisions is a touch iffy. (I know one of these soldiers personally; he refused to report to reserve duty in the territories.) If the leftist soldiers were fully committed to implementing democratic decisions, the 1967 occupation by itself wouldn’t cause this problem. When right-wing soldiers are anti-democratic they’re the problem, but when left-wing soldiers are anti-democratic the occupation is the problem.

    I guess you’re right that ending the 1967 occupation might eliminate the need for these pain-in-the-ass hesder units. You could go back to a nice secular army, with the national-religious sector along with their primitive attitudes towards the sexes once again subordinated or excluded. The difference is that now you’ll be excluding a much more significant sector of Israeli society than in the past.

    In any case, this is a pretty weak argument against the 1967 occupation. Most Israelis agree that the occupation is a pain in the ass. They want to get rid of it, but they believe that can’t be done at this time without making the security situation much worse. I happen to agree with this assessment, but right or wrong, that’s what’s keeping Israelis from ending (most of) the 1967 occupation today, or yesterday. Alongside the fear of rockets and mortars fired at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport, problems with dosim in the army are not all that compelling.

  2. If the West Bank occupation is a “pain in the ass” then one should not augment the settlement population there. If “fear of rockets and mortars” is central to the occupation, then one should find a way to enhance a Palestinian goverance which will police against such things. Most clearly, everywhere, occupation enables a violent underground and puppets local control.

    On both points, one should be against settlement expansion, nay, for contraction. But that is not what one wants.

    I believe Aaron is absolutely and completely right that the ground issue is fear and risk. After the Suicide Bombing War of 2000-2 how could it be otherwise? The terrible truth is Israel must eventually risk against its fear. Risk is probabilistic outcome. Removing all risk is a form of ex Vice President Cheney’s “1% rule”: if something may happen with a 1% probability, we must act as though it is certain. Such a rule will force you to try and prevent so many multiple horrors that your “preventive” actions will become mutually inconsistent. But that inconsistency will find release somewhere: in the polarization of conscripts, “left” and “right,” in micro brutal, hidden, attacks on the lives of, well, non Israelis.

    You are going to have to deal with the genesis of risk and its allocation. And try to remember that risk not identical to realized outcome. A riskless world will always suffocate others, elsewhere.


    ” Israeli society doesn’t have an ideal of the rugged individual. The core ideal is the rugged group and serving the collective good, to an extent that is difficult to translate into American English. ”

    Then, as you enable Israeli Jewish group formation, enable Israeli Arab group formation. You are trapped, people. The only way out is to walk further into the trap.

  3. Despite that near-mutiny experience, the army hasn’t changed its connection to the yeshivot or its reliance on the religious right…because they are the only ones who believe in fighting for the state

    The Cheney rule is 1%. The likelihood of the West Bank becoming an Iranian satellite is greater than 90%. I guess since the Gaza withdrawal was such a great success, then we should repeat it on a much larger scale.

  4. As, Tal, we all knew for certain Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is good to know the world exactly; then others must conform to your knowledge. Fortress national conservatism has logical merit; but over time that merit drains. 9-11 and the Israel Suicide Bombing War did happen. To claim, however, that measures perhaps necessary during or shortly after these events must, in logic, become perpetual might create the very monster you want to see.

    Which is the point. That which you want to see.

    You speak of Gaza, but not the freezing of tax revenue transfer to the Authority upon legitimate election of Hamas as a plurality in the Legislative Council. That freeze, coupled with those added by the US and EU, intensified competition between Hamas and Fatah for dwindling resources. Then some in Hamas, and I think by far not all, captured your Israeli soldier. The siege began. Of course Hamas militancy would intensify. But consider Hamas’ statements of this day.

    I am not stary eyed over Hamas. But I say: we make the monsters we need.

  5. Gregory, when you come over here to live, and send your son and daughter to the army, you will have more authority to advise us then you currently do. If we took your advice and got another terror war, it would be of no negative consequence to you. In fact, it might be a positive consequence. If I were a Palestinian, I would not recognize a Jewish state, or agree to share Jerusalem for the sake of peace. Do you want to know why I wouldnt do so. Its not because I wouldnt recognize any Jewish history in the land. Its because I know that behind my refusal to make peace, I am backed by millions of Gregory Pollocks, Clifs, Martin Sandbergers and others. I know that I have the backing of the EU, Iran, Venezuela, and the Arab world. So I would not compromise my right to Palestine from the river to the sea because I know I can get it all due to my hundreds of millions of followers who will fight to the last Arab to win. If you want peace, work to ensure that we have partners who feel the need to compromise. I am not holding my breath

  6. No, I hold no risk. And you do. What you say is honest and real, and worth more than many to most analyses which make us feel as though we control the world when we do not.

    True peace will have to risk suicide bombing, I doubt that not. A terror war is another matter, for that depends on how one reacts to those events, if they happen. You say “hundreds of millions of followers who will fight to the last Arab to win.” It is not true that all Arabs want to kill. Chris lately on this blog commented that the majority of Palestinians have turned away from violence as an option. True or not, it does not matter; all there need be is a decicated minority. Have you not considered that the Suicide Bomber War of 2000-2 was not just Palestinian againt Israeli but Palestinian against Palestinian? Have you not considered that the occupation by Israel was expected by some through those bombings? Are there really only two sides–the Jew and Arab?

    I have no authority from which to speak. I have lost no one. I risk no one. Only those who have risked can find a way out of this. I consider your response one of the most positive things I have encountered on this blog in comments.

    Currently on this blog are people who really act in this world. A brain damaged Palestinian girl is in Israel proper now. That act breaks our needed enemies, may force us to live without enemies, and I think that a very hard thing to do.

    This blog will do something, I think. I will not. I am a fool. But you are not. You are there. People like you, who risk, are the ones who will count. Keep speaking. Not as I. But maybe as something slightly different than what you expect yourself to be. That is risk, too. Life is risk.

    I am a fool. But I will continue to speak. What else can a fool do?

  7. Red faced, I return:

    Propositions towards an Israeli constitution

    1. Israeli independence was not a purely autonomous act, but one willingly accepted as grounded in international law. UN Resolution 181 is affirmed within the Israeli Declaration of Independence, as is the Resolution’s mandate that the State’s declaration of independence affirm rights listed within the Resolution.

    2. Resolution 181 called for the creation of a written constitution, and the Israeli Declaration conforms to this requirement as well. The First Constituent Assembly of Israel is mandated explicitly to draft a constitution.

    3. A constitutional convention has no legislative power. It’s sole purpose is to draft constraints on State, including legislative, power, placing those constraints before the electorate for approval. The First Constituent Assembly of Israel, by transforming itself into a legislative body, the Knesset, usurped sovereignty, explicitly violating the Israeli Declaration of Independence. A constitutional convention drafts the form of State power but neither approves that draft nor executes State power, this checking the temporary power of the convention itself.

    4. The Knesset, as perpetually sovereign, cannot limit itself. At any moment the Knesset may alter or abolish its past acts. The Knesset cannot form a constitution through piecemeal legislation.

    5. The Declaration produced an interim government as custodial until a constitution could be drafted and approved. That government included the continuation of the Mandate Courts, but with one essential albeit implicit change. The Courts, now motivated by the intent of the Declaration, absorb the telegraphic rights enumerated by the Declaration. The common law scope of the Mandate Courts expands to the protection of these rights.

    6. Former President of the High Court of Justice Barak is wrong to hold that the Court’s jurisdiction is unbounded. Apart from the election of representatives and later fair approval of a drafted constitution by the electorate, the Court has no jurisdiction over a constitutional convention, for that convention may alter the power of the Courts. The legislature may or may not be bound internally to the Court (American legislatures generally are not), depending on what an approved constitution requires. The Knesset, as an usurped constitutional convention, cannot be internally regulated by the Court.

    7. Except that no constitutional convention may abjure rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, for the Declaration, by affirming UN Resolution 181, calls for the preservation of these rights within any written constitution. Again, the founding of Israel was–willingly–not an autonomous act, but collaborative between the UN and a constituent assembly of indigenous Jewish groups in Palestine.

    8. The High Court has unfettered jurisdiction over Declaration enumerated rights absent a written constitution. But it should also self constrain its jurisdiction on all matters absent a Mandate era common law precedent; only a ratified constitution could expand Court powers further.

    9. A written constitution could channel review of rights enumerated in the Declaration, but not deny ultimate review by the High Court. A written constitution could also delineate first interpretation of those rights, but not constrain the High Court solely to that interpretation; rather, written interpretation would be the starting place for deliberation, which could affect the Court’s trajectory.

    10. Not being an autonomous creation, Israel is a unique experiment in constitutional law (the German and Japanese constitutions were imposed upon defeat; while war certainly motivated Jewish Palestinian acceptance of UN Resolution 181, the Resolution was not imposed upon them by an occupying power). The Declaration supercedes even a constitutional convention, empowering the Courts through international mandate alone. Here ex-Justice Barak is right: law does exist independent of the Knesset.

    11. The Knesset cannot both legislate and draft a constitution. It could, however, call for the election of a separate body, of completely disjoint membership, which would exist solely to draft a constitution later presented to the electorate for ratification. The Knesset would continue as a legislative body through the drafting, and take on the characteristics of the legislature as defined in a ratified constitution.

    12. Absent a ratified constitution, the Knesset and Courts exist autonomously in a perpetual interim government, a direct consequence of the Constituent Assembly’s usurpation of sovereignty upon creation of the Knesset. The Court will, rightly, resist Knesset attempts to reduce its jurisdiction, moving closer towards protecting the Declaration as institutional defense.

    13. The above logic is independent of the UN Partition of Palestine. A State, after its creation, may go to war and alter territorial boundaries (even Japan may engage in defensive war which conceivably ends in expanding or contracting its prior territory); or treaty may alter those boundaries. The existence of a State is not equivalent to extant territorial boundaries. Nor is an autonomously declared State required to uphold its constitution. But Israel was not autonomously declared and holds, internally, the policing of its Declaration through its High Court. That is, the foregoing nowhere appeals to an extra-Israeli body for enforcement. The Court, indispensable to Israel after its foundation, is already there and embodies, within its very creation, the logic outlined here.

    14. Operationally, the power of the Court would be less if the Knesset had not usurped sovereignty. An early written constitution would have channeled Court thought. But, as the Knesset has claimed everything, it has dumped an alternative everything into the lap of the Court. The Court should begin by constraining itself as noted in point 6, above.

    15. The Declaration explicitly recognizes the right of return as the ingathering of the Jewish people. The Knesset cannot limit this right, save for tweaking the definition of Jew, and that the Court could review. This constitutes the unalterable Jewish character of Israel. The unalterable democratic character of Israel comes through enforcement of the rights enumerated in the Declaration. Israel can in this sense be both Jewish and democratic. Other ostensive Jewish characteristics of the State are political, mediated by election, conforming to the universal rights of the Declaration. One would expect that enforcing these rights would affect the political definition of the State, over time. Advocating such a Jewish and democratic character is a return to Independence.

    16. All citizens of Israel must have identical availability of use rights to land, contingent on economic standing (which is non-trivial), including the right to rent. Present Israeli law allows non Israeli Jews to purchase use rights, as they would have to be admitted under the Law of Return if they so wished. Equal protection of Israeli citizens would, I believe, shift this, allowing such purchase of use rights only if Israeli citizens, in some reasonable time frame, have not purchased the package. Equal protection will alter present land law.

    17. There are two original versions of the Declaration. One in Hebrew, the other English. That in Hebrew insures equal protection for “citizens”; the English version says “inhabitants.” Because Israeli Independence is a collaborative enterprise, the greater sense, here, the English, should prevail.

    18. The Declaration does not provide a right of return as such to displaced Palestinians. I believe a weaker version of the law of return (coupled with equal protection) might apply to some, but not all, displaced Palestinians; but that would be a construction for the Court (if the legislature does not act), so I refrain at present from further comment.

    19. Nothing in the foregoing provides a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But that conflict may be exacerbated partly because Israeli constitutional process is malformed, and always has been. Addressing the constitutional import of the Declaration of Independence gives the Israeli polity a chance to reform itself.

  8. Another excellent article by GG. I have not read much about this, it is an important and neglected issue. I don’t think that Palestinians are not aware of this factor as well as they despair and look to other ways ( international pressure) of achieving the justice they are due.

  9. I think Gershon should relax. Should Ashkenazi go into politics, he will support Gershon’s views on the “peace process” because every single General that went into politics, with the exception of Rehavam Ze’evi, ended up on the side of the ‘peace camp’, including those like Itzik Mordechai, Shaul Mofaz, Ariel Sharon, and Yossi Peled who started out in the Likud (Peled has even gone back but that shows he is willing to be seen to be more of opportunist than the others). The reason for this is simple…the money and the power in Israel is on the Left and all the politicians smell this. The only thing that isn’t is the voting public.

    It should also be pointed out that there are reasons other “the occupation” for the decline in the number of Leftists who want to serve in combat units and to become officers. The IDF simply does not have the aura that it had in the early years of the state, partly because of the numerous failures it has had, plus Jews in general today don’t remember the powerlessness the Jews used to have to endure and thus don’t look at the IDF as its antithesis, in other words, taking it more or less for granted today. Also, as the economy has moved away from its stifling, proteksia-bound socialist origins, there are more opportunities for young Israelis to get ahead today, so the IDF is only one institution competing among others for career-oriented people.

  10. I forgot to mention Moshe Ya’alon as another General who is on the “Right”, but he is still early in his career. Interestingly enough, he started out as a Leftist and big supporter of Oslo but quickly became disillusioned. Will he be immune to the enticements of the money and power of the Left in Israel? Stay tuned.

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