Leadership: December 28, 2004

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Israel is having political and religious problems in its armed forces. The head of the armed forces has openly reminded all officers that, when they are on active duty, they must obey their officers, and not their rabbis. The major dispute comes from the deeply religious settler community. These are the Jews that believe in Greater Israel. That is, an Israel that takes over the West Bank and all other territories that were once part of Israel in the ancient past. This would include, depending on which version of Greater Israel you believe in, parts of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other nearby countries. So far, the Greater Israel movement has established itself as Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians, naturally, dont agree with this form of expansionism. Israel, being a democracy, has found that a majority of the population does not agree with the Greater Israel idea either. So a recent government decision to shut down the settlements in Gaza brought the government into direct confrontation with the Greater Israel movement. Since the settlers believe they are obeying a religious mandate to resettle historically Jewish lands, they see efforts to remove them in religious, not political, terms. Israel has a conscript army, thus many of the troops are believers in the Greater Israel concept. These soldiers are being told by their religious leaders that they should refuse orders to assist in the removal of settlers from Gaza. This brings us back to the commander of the Israeli armed forces reminding everyone that the religious leaders have no authority to countermand orders from military commanders. This is not the first time individual Israelis have refused to follow military orders they did not agree with. In the past, these soldiers were simply removed from service, and sometimes jailed. But this time the number of soldiers who might be involved numbers in the thousands. The army is allowing soldiers with relatives in settlements to be shut down, to, if need be, get transferred to a unit not involved in settlement operations. But beyond that, the army is telling the troops that it will not allow rabbis to countermand military orders. Any soldier who refuses to obey officers will be punished. 

The problem Israel faces is not unique. All nations have, at one time or another, run into problems when divisive political, or religious, issues caused a breakdown of discipline. If the dissenting groups are large enough, such disagreements can lead to civil war. Some extremist religious leaders have called for that. But for now, the number of soldiers. who might be tempted to disobey orders, appears to be small. This is partly because many of the most religious young men are exempt from conscription if they are engaged in religious studies. But the main reason this will not be a major problem is because Israel is a democracy, and whatever decisions that are made represent the majority. The religious parties in Israel have always been small (about 15 percent of the parliament). These parties are more religious than political, seeking new laws that will increase the power of religion in day to day life. The fear in Israel is that some of the deeply religious Jews will become radicalized, and violent. As some Israelis have been heard to observe, Israel is turning into a Middle Eastern country.

 


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