The IDF: Army of the People or Army of God?

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On July 9, 2014, as Israel prepared for a ground incursion in Gaza, Col. Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati Brigade, sent a letter to his subordinate officers, which was criticized for its religious content. In the lines below, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer discusses the appropriateness of the content of the letter.

Colonel Ofer Winter is an outstanding IDF officer, among the country’s finest sons. During the past summer he and other IDF commanders and soldiers placed their lives in peril and endangered themselves in order to safeguard the welfare of Israel’s citizens and the security of the state. The gratitude we all owe them is incalculable.

Despite the above, as citizens of a democratic country, we are not absolved from addressing the question of whether statements such as those in Ofer Winter's "commander’s letter"—a dispatch that he distributed to the soldiers of the Givati brigade prior to their entrance into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge—are appropriate. The focus of this discussion is not Col. Winter himself, but rather, the specific content of the letter he issued before the military operation.

Even now, after the cease fire, the question of the appropriateness of the letter warrants discussion, especially in the context of how it ties in with the trend of the army’s growing religiosity, or religification. A detailed discussion of this trend is beyond the scope of this article; we will suffice with recalling the meetings of IDF rabbis with combat forces during Operation Cast Lead (January 2009); military gatherings, ceremonies, and educational activities in which religious content had a prominent place; the controversy over women's singing at IDF events, and more.

The problem is not just that this type of system of influence was brought to bear upon soldiers, who are a totally captive audience. It is that the messages that are being transmitted are often characterized by extreme particularism, which is not at all balanced by universalism. One of the problematic and serious manifestations of this particularism is the exclusion of women and the harm it causes to female soldiers in service. It is important to keep in mind the nature of the audience that is being subject to these influences and the context of the framework in which they serve. Young Israelis enter military service following education in educational systems that systematically neglect the humanistic perspective and stress Jewish uniqueness. By its nature, the military framework emphasizes the nationalistic spirit vis-à-vis the relevant "other"; that is, the enemy or someone suspected of being such. It is also a highly hierarchical framework that does not encourage freedom of thought and criticism, in which the influence of indoctrination by the military command is particularly significant. Religious texts and content speak to these soldiers not only with the authority of the military command but also with the authority of the binding, immutable holy Torah. Within this context, messages about Jewish superiority and demonization of the enemy are fertile ground for fostering brutality and releasing soldiers from moral constraints.

Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between the degree of the army’s “religification,” the democratic character of the state, and the ability and willingness of authorized officials to make fateful decisions about the state’s future. The more religious the army becomes, the greater the danger that legal decisions requiring evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories will not be implemented due to rabinically-sanctioned insubordination—or even worse. (This is not a prediction for the future; directives to refuse to obey orders have already been issued by rabbis in the past.) The implication is that in practice, the sovereign freedom of citizens in a democracy to make decisions about crucial issues, via their representatives, is already curtailed at the outset, due to the fear of being confronted with a schism of unparalleled proportions.

The political nature of these developments should not be ignored. These moves are directed by the religious Zionist camp and serve its political needs. This is politicization of the army at its most glaring, and is using the army for political indoctrination, to gain adherents to a certain political-ideological worldview and, indirectly, to a particular political movement. There is nothing more contrary to the military’s status as an institution of the state that is meant to represent all. The lengths to which the state has gone on this issue can be seen from the establishment of the Jewish Identity Administration, headed by former IDF chief rabbi Avichai Rontzki, within the Religious Services Ministry. The Israeli taxpayer is supporting the cultivation of a very specific kind of Jewish awareness, such that those who were under Rabbi Rontzki’s sway in the military will again be subject to his government-supported influence in civilian life, driven and led by religious Zionism.

Col. Winter’s letter would never have come into this world were it not for the above antecedents. This illustrates the problematic nature of the army’s growing religification.

The Letter’s Problematic Content

The letter that Col. Winter distributed to his soldiers included the following: 

"I lift my eyes up to the heavens and call out, together with you: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Lord, the God of Israel, grant success to the path on which we are setting out to do battle on behalf of Your nation Israel against an enemy that blasphemes Your name. In the name of the IDF fighters, and specifically the fighters of the [Givati] brigade and its commanders, may God act and fulfill through us the Biblical verse: "The Lord your God goes with you to do battle against your enemies to save you," and let us say Amen."

 The letter also referred to the war as being waged against the "Gazan terrorist enemy" that "curses, reviles, and defames the God of the battles of Israel." It makes no mention of Gaza’s civilian population and the obligation to prevent them from unnecessary harm.

The Significance of the Letter's Content

The statements above, which we assume were written in good faith and with good intentions, in order to fortify the spirit of the soldiers as they go out into battle, are problematic from several perspectives:

  • A commander’s letter is the word of the army

    Col. Winter’s letter is not a private poem. It is the army’s words. To his soldiers, Col. Winter represents the IDF. The content of his letter is not presented for theoretical reflection. Neither is it a platform for discussion where there is room for different or alternative views. It is a demonstration of power. It is a binding military order. Behind it is the force of military discipline, unmatched in its intensity, which obligates even the execution of illegal orders, provided they are not patently illegal. Its force exceeds that of a regular order, which has defined and discrete content. Indeed, this letter also embodies the commander’s spirit, and the spirit of the commander is the spirit of the entire army.

    The test of the commander’s letter’s content is not what Col. Winter meant but rather, how his soldiers, or some of his soldiers, who are under his command and see him as a figure to emulate, might interpret and understand his words.

  • The IDF as the army of God

    The statements in Col. Winter's letter can be understood as transforming the IDF into the army of God, especially since the enemy is defined as the enemy of God. The Israel Defense Forces is the army of the state, not the army of God. It must be the army of the state and only the state, it must be subject to the government’s authority and not any other authority, and it must be accountable to the Knesset. There is no room for another entity between the army and the representative of Israel's citizens in the government—not even for the Almighty Himself in all His glory. If He is there, then in effect, those who speak for Him are also there, and as we have seen, their words are likely to be different than those of IDF authorized officials.

    An army that is accountable to different authorities is a threat to democracy and a real existential threat. There is no difference between such an army and the Islamist armies. Moreover, this kind of approach, which corresponds to the views of Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the most radical groups in the region, serves the goals of these organizations and strengthens them within their target audiences on the Arab and Palestinian street. In addition, if every war declared by the state, including a war of choice, is automatically a war in God’s name, it would grant undue power to the government, power which no human government deserves and which citizens in a democracy should greatly fear.

    If the Zionist movement is indeed a manifestation of the Divine process of redemption, as many religious Zionists claim, there are two possibilities: either the government of Israel is leading the process—and woe to the state that deifies its government—or the rabbis are leading the process, which would make Israel a theocracy. This could lead to a scenario in which every soldier and every commander follows his own rabbi, and some of them would choose to follow rabbis such as Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, who permit the killing of non-Jewish infants and children in war since they will grow up to do us harm and because “they also benefit from it, otherwise they will not grow up properly and we would have to kill them anyway” (from The King’s Torah, chapter 5). A rational outlook must guide the decision to go to war, the course of the war, and its conclusion, as well as its commitment to ethical standards; defining the enemy as the enemy of God, however, shifts us to the notion of a religious war, which is not bound by rationality or by ethical standards.

    An army that is an army of God cannot be an army of the people. Such an army would not deserve to be the army of the people in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel at the beginning of the 21st century.

  • The commander’s letter and freedom of religion

    In a democratic country, the army is prohibited from imposing a foreign or unacceptable worldview upon any soldier. As long as the IDF includes non-Jewish soldiers and Jewish soldiers who are not members of the national religious community, military orders may not include prayers or calls to God. No one is permitted to call out to God in the name of soldiers, and no one is allowed to recruit God to accompany them in battle. Any other approach is disrespectful to soldiers who do not identify as national religious. It violates their freedom of conscience and religion. The harm is especially serious because military service in Israel is compulsory and because of the nature of military discipline. It is also problematic in terms of utility, as it creates a sense of alienation among those who do not share the same religious outlook, precisely at a time when total and absolute identification is required.

    As long as this trend of “religification” in the IDF continues, it negatively affects the motivation of non-national-religious soldiers to serve in its ranks and affects the ability of non-religious citizens to see the army as their army. This is also true of the motivation of women to serve in the army. These implications are certainly undesirable and negative.

    There is nothing wrong with national religious soldiers and commanders being able to pray before embarking on a military operation, so long as the substance of their prayers is not problematic in terms of the rules of war. In fact, it is even appropriate and beneficial to the fighting spirit. Just as the freedom from religion of non-religious soldiers must be respected, so too the freedom of religion of national religious soldiers must be respected. One who does not show such respect or does not protest when such respect is violated should not be surprised by the ensuing negative, hostile, and suspicious reactions among both the national religious public and the non-national-religious public.

  • The inherent danger of the commander’s letter

    Just as the IDF is not the army of God, the enemies of the state are simply our enemies, and that is sufficient. The issue of whether they curse, revile, and defame the God of the battles of Israel is a metaphysical question, not a military matter.

    This is not linguistic pedantry. The question is what message was received from the statements in the letter, and it must be noted that what is important is the message received and not the message that was sent or that was intended to be sent. The message of the letter was a message of demonization, and demonizing the enemy is the gateway to war crimes. For example, is it appropriate to take a surrendering enemy soldier prisoner or should he be killed, since he is not only our enemy but also the enemy of God, who accompanies us in battle?

Beyond the statements described above, the letter also included the following: “We will do everything possible to succeed in our mission in order to destroy the enemy and remove the threat from the nation of Israel… We will do all we can in order to ensure that our boys come back safely, using all means at our disposal and all the force necessary.” But the letter did not include a statement that it is a duty to refrain from inflicting harm when there is no critical military justification for doing so and that it is a duty to ensure that the action meets the criteria of proportionality among civilian populations. Consequently, the following question is unavoidable: Was all that was necessary done in order to avoid harming civilians not involved in combat?

The nature of fighting in Gaza, in built-up residential areas where terrorists and civilians are intertwined, at times deliberately on the part of the terrorists, presents a significant danger to both soldiers and civilians. We cannot take for granted that each and every Israeli soldier values the life of Gaza's civilians. Under these circumstances, it is extremely tempting to try to prevent any degree of danger to our soldiers at the expense of moves and actions that create great danger to the lives of uninvolved civilians on the other side. It is not possible to have a moral army and at the same time to allow this temptation to guide the military operation. Commanders’ letters must clearly address the duty to prevent unnecessary harm to civilians.

The IDF commanders and the government, to whose authority the military is subject, cannot allow themselves to ignore the change taking place in the army right in front of their eyes. Turning a blind eye and conducting “business as usual” are the opposite of what is required of leadership. It is not too much to expect that those who demonstrate military courage will also demonstrate the civil courage necessary to address this problem. 

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer is Vice President of Research of IDI and a Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.