Jerusalem – Four out of the ten soldiers killed in Operation Cast Lead were religious Zionist, crocheted-kippa-wearing combat soldiers. This unfortunate fact could be dismissed as a sad coincidence, however, that is not the case.
Not only were religious Zionists (who make up between 10 percent and 15% of the population) disproportionately represented among the IDF’s casualties, but also among combat officers, both in career service and in the reserves.
Hundreds of Hesder students such as Dvir Immanueloff, from the Netivot Yeshiva, who was killed in the first week of fighting, served in Gaza. There were also many religious Zionist young men like Nitai Stern, another casualty, who enlisted immediately after high school.
More significantly, dozens of the low to mid-level officers who served in Gaza were graduates of pre-military yeshiva academies. One such officer was Yoni Netanel, who studied for three years at Bnei David Yeshiva Academy on Eli, a settlement in Samaria, and who was killed in Gaza by friendly fire.
Others, like Dagan Vartman, enlisted in the IDF after devoting several years to Torah study at Yeshivat Har Hamor.
In the most recent graduation from Bahad 1, the officers’ training base, about half were religious Zionists, according to a former training officer. Even more conservative estimates, of past graduations from Bahad 1, claim that between 30% and 40% of the graduates were religious.
In recent years, military sociologists such as Dr. Yigal Levi of the Open University, Professor Stuart Cohen of Bar Ilan University and journalists such as Ofer Shelach, who in 2003 wrote The Israeli Army: A Radical Proposal [Hamagash Vehakesef in Hebrew], have noted the dramatic changes in the composition of the IDF.
The basic conclusion is that for a long time now the IDF has ceased to be the “People’s Army” envisioned by the state’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Rather, the IDF’s combat units are disproportionately manned by members of what once was considered the socioeconomic periphery: residents of development towns, immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their children, and Druse.
But undoubtedly, the most dramatic change has been among religious Zionists. And one of the most dramatic catalysts of this transformation has been the creation of the religious pre-military academies.
Until the late 1980s, modern religious young men had two choices: enlist in the IDF immediately after high school along with tens of thousands of secular young men, or join one of a handful of Hesder Yeshivot that mix Torah learning with a shortened army service.
A large percentage of religious Zionist men who chose to enter the IDF without first learning in a yeshiva ended up abandoning their religious lifestyles. Perhaps it was the secular atmosphere in the army barracks or the feeling of inadequacy in the face of the Ashkenazi, secular elite that dominated the IDF’s command that caused impressionable young religious Zionist men to remove their kippot and hide the fact that they came from Orthodox homes, or maybe it was the fact that these religious men received little or no backing from rabbinic leaders.
Meanwhile, Hesder Yeshiva students, who often served in religious-only platoons, managed to maintain their religious adherence. They were highly motivated and served primarily in combat units, especially in tank battalions. And they received ample backing from rabbis and spiritual leaders. But since their military term was shortened to allow them to devote more time to Torah study, they could not become officers.
In the mid-1980s Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amram Mitzna, then-OC Central Commander, who had been impressed by the high level of morale and idealism among religious Zionist soldiers, set in motion the establishment of religious pre-military academies.
Mitzna encouraged Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who served at the time as Battalion Commander under Mitzna, to create a framework that encouraged religious Zionist men to serve full military service and advance to officers’ training courses.
Bnei David, the first pre-military academy, was created in 1988 and was headed by Levinstein and Rabbi Eli Sadan. Today there are about a dozen religious pre-military academies and about ten secular ones.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Sadan told how he had faced opposition from many leading religious Zionist rabbis. These rabbis actually tried to torpedo Bnei David before it was established, fearing that religious Zionists would abandon the Hesder Yeshivot, thus undermining Torah scholarship.
“It was similar to the way haredi rabbis first reacted to the secular Zionist movement,” said Sadan. “They had difficulty dealing with the idea of coming out of galut [exile]. But today heads of yeshivot who opposed me at the time are proud that many of their graduates are high-ranking officers,” he added.
Sadan anchored military service in the religious thought of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the spiritual founding father of religious Zionism.
“I’d say that in the last 15 or 16 years we’ve created this new norm, this new culture. We managed to create an atmosphere among people that it is something very ‘in’ to serve in the army, that it is something very important and good,” he said.
“People who dedicate themselves to protecting the state should be appreciated and honored and respected. A guy who decides to become a career officer in a combat unit should not feel that he is swimming against the stream. Rather the opposite should be true. He should feel that all his education, all his friends, his parents, everyone is very supportive.
“We have managed to create a cultural environment in our society [religious Zionists] that puts at the top of our priorities dedication to the nation and to army service. And we do this out of a strong religious faith based on a Torah perspective of a spiritual purity.”