The Religious Right in Israel and the Transformation of the IDF

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Timely Articles

The arrest of Kiryat Arba-Hebron Chief Rabbi Dov Lior this week for endorsing extremist views has all sides in Israel discussing the fine line between free speech and incitement. These recent developments also take place during a heated debate regarding the role that religion or religious language should play within the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). In both cases, it is clear that the issue of religious extremism among the settlers and the ever-increasing participation of religiously motivated officers in the IDF will prove to be a constant source of debate and perhaps irritation within Israeli society.

On the issue of Rabbi Dov Lior, The Jerusalem Post editorialized, “It is not at all clear that Lior has committed a crime. He has, however, placed his rabbinic reputation behind a morally repugnant book called Torat Hamelech (The King’s Torah), based on the essentialist premise that non-Jewish lives are inherently less valued in the eyes of God than Jewish lives — a premise that has far-reaching and horrid implications, particularly in war-time settings…. Nevertheless, in a Jewish state that respects not only the rule of law but also democratic principles, special care should be made not to stifle intellectual expression, even if the result is books like Torat Hamelech…. The remedy…is not censorship or intimidation, but the eminently Jewish practice of open intellectual debate and exchange of opinion.”

From the other respected Israeli daily, Haaretz: “The arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior two days ago is a controversial act that has aroused worrisome reactions. Those who favor freedom of expression will of course find it difficult to accept as self-evident the arrest of a person, any person, for things that he said or wrote. An open and liberal democratic society is not tested by its support for speakers or writers of texts of which it approves, but by providing an opportunity to say harmful things, as infuriating and subversive as they may be, about it and even against it…. Freedom of expression must be strictly maintained, but Rabbi Lior should be dismissed from all his positions. Democracy is not supposed to employ fomenters of riots who are trying to crush it in the name of halakha [the collective body of Jewish law].”

This is not the only incident involving well-known rabbis.  Last year, West Bank Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the committee of hesder yeshivas was criticized for encouraging IDF soldiers to refuse settlement-evacuation orders. According to Jonathan Lis, reporting last year on the controversy, “The hesder yeshiva program, which combines Torah study with army service, sparked controversy after the Har Bracha yeshiva’s chief rabbi encouraged soldiers to refuse settlement-evacuation orders, prompting Defense Minister Ehud Barak to cut ties with the institution. In a pamphlet distributed in synagogues, Druckman also recently encouraged IDF soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements or enforce the 10-month construction freeze.”

Other reports, however, have tried to ring the alarm bell on the sharp rise of the religious IDF officers. As Amos Harel, also writing in Haaretz, points out, “Around one-third of Israel Defense Forces infantry officers are religious, with the proportion jumping from only 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007, a new study shows. The research was published in the military journal Maarachot…. [A]nother factor, he said, is a deeper process underway in the religious Zionist sector’s approach to the state and the IDF. He gave particular weight to the emergence of premilitary religious preparatory programs, the first of which opened in 1987. These programs, he wrote, allowed many religious high school graduates to strengthen their faith before taking up full-length military service in combat units.”

A blog post by J.J. Goldberg at The Forward suggests that the Israeli political leadership might also be responsible for “shifting the IDF to the right”: “Bibi and Barak, under pressure from the General Staff and key ministers, pulled back at the last minute from their plan to appoint a temporary Chief of Staff, current deputy chief Yair Naveh, and throw the search back open for two months of promised chaos and intrigue. Instead Barak named Major General Benny Gantz, who served as outgoing chief Gabi Ashkenazi’s deputy chief and stepped down last fall…. Interestingly, Gantz was nobody’s first choice, which is probably why he was everyone’s second choice. He shares Ashkenazi’s views on the use of force, but he is also a firm believer in keeping his opinions to himself, which accords with the democratic ideas of civilian control but also means that the politicians don’t necessarily get to hear the professional, apolitical evaluations of their paid experts.”

And, by all accounts, it was the new IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz who might have been responsible for the latest dust up surrounding the controversial phrasing of the remembrance prayer for fallen IDF soldiers from “Israel remembers its sons and daughters “ to “God remembers his sons and daughters.” Jonah Mandel of the Jerusalem Post reported last week,  “The argument over the wording of the IDF’s memorial prayer has gone up a notch, with over 40,000 people signing an online petition by Monday night calling on Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz to revert to the original version that gives no mention to God. Yehudit Bialer, whose son Yoram was killed in the line of duty in 1969, initiated the petition on Thursday, in wake of the recent report on Haaretz that Gantz had decided on the long-standing issue of the opening of the Yizkor text recited at military ceremonies…. The debate has touched [a raw] nerve in Israeli society. Eli Ben-Shem, head of the Yad Labanim soldiers’ memorial organization, said it received hundreds of phone calls from angry bereaved parents over the past week, hurt by the chief of staff’s decision.”

But according to Yossi Yehoshua of YNet news, IDF Chief Gantz has since denied any final changes have been approved.  Yehoshua continues, “The statement followed a report suggesting such an order was given, which prompted a torrent of mixed responses…. Meanwhile, petitions have been formed calling on Gantz not to change the Yizkor Prayer phrasing. Former IDF Personnel Directorate Chief Elazar Stern voiced his support of the original prayer version, written by influential intellectual Berl Katznelson in 1920, phrased as ‘Israel remembers.’ “I’m not sure the people of Israel remember the soldiers, so we must demand that they do,” said Stern. “On every Memorial Day we also say the traditional funeral prayer, which I believe unifies the fallen with god. It seems to me that the phrasing of ‘Israel remembers’ makes it so the people of Israel remember as well and as god.”

For Sefi Rachlevsky, the new formulation “is a hair-raising messianic formula. Making it the obligatory wording of the official Yizkor memorial prayer is a true revolution, one that alters the IDF’s very essence: It has now become the Israel Divine Offense Forces. Author Haim Gouri wrote of fathers forced to sacrifice their sons, who were born with a knife in their heart. Now it’s even worse: Those exempted from the draft are turning the nonreligious into future sacrifices for ‘God’ and the messianic settlements…. A real Israel Defense Forces will arise only when the army that has replaced it — the Israel Divine Offense Forces, the army that is leading us to destruction — is dismantled. Netanyahu, Gantz, the ‘murdered’ of the Altalena, the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division and God all seem to be quickening their steps in a way that will lead thousands of young people to decide that, for Israel’s sake, they have a duty not to join such an army.”

However, not everyone is as alarmed about the new developments. Udi Lebel, takes a different position from Sefi Rachlevsky, arguing the Yizkor must reflect those who serve in the IDF. This should not alarm anyone: “For years, the Israel Defense Forces has been working to modify its values and objectives for the groups who serve in it, trying to find images that are likely to find favor in the eyes of those who influence the opinion of its fighters…. There are parts of the army that must not be influenced by politics. Politics should not affect the nature of its missions, its values, certainly not the funeral prayers for its fallen. But the unnecessary change in the Yizkor (Remembrance) prayer is no different from dynamics used to placate the strong group…. [I]n an era when most of the fighters come from another place in society — from a close connection to Jewish tradition, from settlements and yeshivas — the version of Yizkor has been adapted, unpleasant as it is to say, to those for whom the prayer might be said.”


Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top