Are Religious Troops Changing Israel's Military?

An Israeli soldier sits on his tank and prays. Menahem Kahana / AFP-Getty Images

Among the elite troops of the Israeli military's Maglan special-forces unit, Naftali Bennett was an oddity. As an officer in the unit in the early 1990s, he commanded more than 80 young men, all of them secular and many from kibbutzim communities aligned with the left-center Labor Party. Bennett is an observant Jew, and among combat officers throughout the military he was one of the few who wore a yarmulke, didn't travel on Saturdays, and never ate cheeseburgers because of the Jewish ban on mixing milk and meat.

Now long a civilian, Bennett had a chance recently to visit with new recruits in his old unit. Two things struck him: the large number of religious Jews among the young men, and the Army's extraordinary efforts to accommodate them. "In my day, no one gave it a thought," he says.

A transformation is sweeping the Israeli military: deeply religious Jews are now filling leadership positions in numbers far exceeding their share of the general population. Given that religious Israelis tend to be more hawkish than most, the trend raises a real question about whether Israel can rely on the Army to implement the toughest parts of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.

U.S. efforts to keep the talks alive continued last week as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government weighed a new 90-day ban on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But if a peace deal is ever achieved, it would undoubtedly require the evacuation of at least some settlements—a job for the Army. Some defense analysts and former officers worry that the military's new religiosity could lead to mass insubordination. "If soldiers decide they don't want to participate, that's one thing," says Mikhael Manekin, a reserve lieutenant who co-chairs the left-wing group Breaking the Silence. "If commanders don't want to participate, that would be much more worrying." (Manekin says all his commanding officers were settlers during his four years of active duty.)

The threat isn't as farfetched as it sounds. Ever since the government demolished the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, former residents have kept trying to establish an illegal outpost there, and authorities have kept sending troops to evict them. A year ago, during swearing-in ceremonies for new recruits of the Shimshon Battalion in Jerusalem, several soldiers unfurled a banner proclaiming: SHIMSHON DOES NOT EVACUATE HOMESH. The military court-martialed the perpetrators, sentenced them to the brig, and expelled them from their unit. But in the weeks that followed, similar signs were displayed at two other units' training bases.

Although the military publishes little information about the backgrounds of its enlistees, a recent issue of the defense journal Maarachot reported that in recent years some 30 percent of graduates from the infantry officers' course have defined themselves as "Zionist-religious," up from only 2.5 percent 20 years ago. (About 12 percent of Israelis in general choose that label.) Many of those fledgling lieutenants, along with a number of higher-ranking combat officers, were drawn from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and some are residents of outposts—smaller, makeshift settlements—established without authorization from the government.

The mere specter of widespread refusal is enough to make the government think twice before ordering evacuations, whether of settlements or of outposts, says sociologist Yagil Levy, who specializes in military trends. (The threat might explain why most outposts remain standing despite Israel's promise to dismantle dozens of them under a U.S. initiative back in 2003.) Some analysts have suggested that the police should handle future evacuations, rather than the Army.

The rise within the military of the "knitted skullcaps" has been building for years. In the 1990s, after the controversial first Lebanon war, many liberal Israelis stopped encouraging their kids to go beyond the mandatory three years of national service. "We secular people can only blame ourselves for no longer being able to convince our kids to spend as many years in the military as in the past," says Avshalom Vilan, a former member of Parliament from the left-wing Meretz Party and a kibbutznik.

At about the same time, more religious Israelis were concluding that their community should have played a larger role in building the country's secular institutions decades earlier. Embracing military service more fervently was a way to make up for lost time. "The religious community has to be involved in all public institutions, not just the Army," says Rabbi Eli Sadan, 62, at his home in the settlement of Eli, deep in the West Bank. "That's the revolution we're creating." Sadan oversees one of a string of West Bank pre-military academies where rabbis teach Torah and Jewish philosophy for up to two years while preparing students for military service and imbuing them (this is where some secular Israelis get nervous) with a religious sense of mission. Most graduates forgo the option of serving in strictly religious units, mixing instead with the general population.

The religious-run military academies have had a big role in reshaping the Army. Of Eli's 2,500 alumni, about half have served as officers in combat detachments, and a quarter have spent time in the military's most elite units. Twenty-one of the graduates have been killed in action, most in recent years. Their names and photos are displayed on the wall of a memorial room at the academy, except for one—a lieutenant colonel, killed in Lebanon; his unit is so secretive that his photo cannot be shown even after his death, say people at the academy.

That kind of heroism has brought respect. Nevertheless, critics worry about the loyalty of religious Jews in uniform: if tested, would they obey their commanders or their rabbis? In fact, a number of rabbis in West Bank settlements have repeatedly urged soldiers not to evacuate Jews from settlements in case the order is ever given. "How can anyone even consider commanding a Jew, for whom the mitzvah [commandment] to settle the Land of Israel is so central, to destroy a settlement and to displace its residents?" wrote the influential Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha settlement in an online column last year. When "a ruling of the Israeli government clashes with the essential commandment to settle the Land of Israel," Melamed wrote, "there is clear and unquestionable preference for the law of the Torah."

To be sure, not all religious Jews support the settler movement. Even among those who do, many believe that maintaining the Army's cohesion is more important than even the most sacred political battle. Sadan is quick to point out that few religious soldiers disobeyed orders during Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. But the evacuation of Gaza involved only 10,000 settlers. They number 300,000 in the West Bank, which is much holier to religious Jews. That settlers are among the company and battalion commanders serving in the West Bank is itself problematic, says sociologist Levy. He cites cases of soldiers who leaked information to settlers about planned evacuations of outposts, giving settlers time to organize resistance.

Others say Israel's center of gravity will move further than ever to the right as religious Jews retire from the military's senior ranks and move on to prestigious roles in civilian life. Bennett, the former member of Maglan, is a good example. He went on to found a startup company that he eventually sold to a U.S. firm for $145 million. Bennett now serves as the director of the settlers' main political arm, the Yesha Council. "It's a sea change for Israel," he says. He's certainly no oddity now.