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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 21, 2011

Thumbnail image for Yossi Alpher 186x140.jpgAlpher gives an update on the status of anti-democratic Knesset efforts to stifle civil society in Israel, and expounds on the rising influence of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in the IDF.

Q. Last week you discussed right wing initiatives in the Knesset to constrain or even shut down Israeli NGOs that keep tabs on settlement spread and deal with Palestinian human rights in the territories. Has the liberal and international reaction deterred Netanyahu from pursuing those initiatives? 

A. That appears to be the case, at least partially and temporarily. On Sunday it was reliably reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had frozen government sponsorship of a bill to severely restrict funding by foreign governments for Israeli NGOs that promote human rights. This follows a pattern of retreat on this measure in the previous Knesset session, when pressure built up on Netanyahu from liberal defenders of basic freedoms within his own Likud party as well as from European governments that could retaliate against the measure by freezing funding for many mainstream joint research projects with Israeli scientific institutions. 

At last report, the prime minister was said to be looking for a much narrower legal definition that would target not human rights organizations but "political" organizations that receive funding from foreign governments. That, obviously, is not an easy or even a logical task: a lot of "political" activity--e.g., efforts to empower Israeli Arabs--actually involves their human rights, while a lot of human rights activity, such as monitoring settlement incursions on private Palestinian land, can be maliciously labeled "political".

Meanwhile, a bill that would have subordinated selection of Supreme Court judges to the Knesset and thereby politicized the Court was also shelved by Netanyahu under liberal pressure. On the other hand, additional planks in the reactionary right-wing legislative and regulatory platform were being pursued with vigor, e.g., an attempt to determine the appointment of a right-wing Supreme Court president through manipulative legislation and a bill to toughen legislation regarding slander to such an extent that the Israeli media would be deterred from investigating and criticizing politicians. In a similar vein, the Knesset continued to act to manipulate the financial status of TV channel 10, whose news staff sees as its mandate the investigation of government malpractice and corruption, in order to force it to close shop.

So strong is the populist pull of Israel's reactionary right that even a seemingly moderate legislator who knows Israel's Arab community well, former Shin Bet chief and domestic security minister Avi Dichter of Kadima, has introduced legislation that would give primacy to Israel's "Jewish" character over its "democratic" nature and strip Arabic of its status as an official language in Israel. And some of the right's regressive legislative initiatives reflect not so much the "values" of their backers, most of whom are young and relatively inexperienced members of Knesset, as their desire to achieve national prominence and thereby ensure they will be on the Likud's ticket next elections.

At the end of last week Hagit Ofran, who runs Peace Now's Settlement Watch project and has now been threatened twice with the "fate of Yitzhak Rabin" by extremist "price tag" settlers, offered this insightful take on the motives behind the reactionary measures being pursued by right wing settler interests embedded in the Netanyahu government: "The right saw during the [2005 Gaza] disengagement that most of the public was not backing it, and concluded that the road back to the center went through the de-legitimization of the left. If they paint the left as anti-Israeli, then they [the right] will be recognized as Israelis. This is a strategic attack. There is almost no opposition in the Knesset, so whom will the right yell at? It's in power. So it argues with civil society: left-wing organizations, peace movements, human rights NGOs."

Q. Meanwhile, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox influence in the IDF appears to be growing by leaps and bounds. Is this linked to the right's reactionary campaign? And how could this affect Israel's overall defense posture?

A. There are links, in the sense that religious elements in the army tend overwhelmingly to be "national religious" Orthodox settlers and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth who identify with the political right. Another element that links the two is simply intolerance, whether of the left wing, the peace movement, or the kind of secular ambience that has characterized the IDF since its inception during the 1948 War of Independence. It is fair to say that some very religious Jews in Israel are almost by definition intolerant of democratic and pluralistic principles when those principles are understood to conflict with their demand for a totally religious environment or are involved in defending the rights of non-Jews.

But there is a more immediate factor at work: demographics. The proportion of male religious soldiers in the IDF, particularly in combat units and particularly among those units' lower and medium officer ranks (some 30 percent of the total, and rising), has grown immensely in the past decade or so. This reflects a concerted effort by the national religious movement to encourage its youth to serve as combat soldiers and officers, along with an effort by the Ministry of Defense--part of a broader campaign to integrate the Haredi community into the mainstream of Israeli economic life--to recruit Haredi youth who have dropped out or wish to drop out of yeshiva life, where they are shielded from military service but are destined to remain bereft of skills to earn a decent living. 

In parallel, as Israel becomes more prosperous and army service, with the sacrifices involved during a three-year compulsory term, becomes more closely identified by some liberal circles with the occupation, urban secular youth are less inclined to seek combat duty or officer status--or even, in some cases, to serve at all.

The upshot is increasing pressure from religious soldiers and the rabbis they answer to, to make army life more religious. The most blatant instance is the demand to segregate male and female soldiers, and in particular to exempt religious soldiers from ceremonies and entertainment in which women sing (considered lewd by halacha, Jewish traditional law). Note that virtually all women soldiers are non-religious, as religiosity is valid grounds for women to avoid service. 

There is a growing rabbinic presence within the ranks, with civilian rabbis who educate national religious youth prior to induction insisting on interfering in army life and on occasion even countermanding orders from commanding officers. Here and there, rabbis are trying to take over "educational" duties from IDF education officers whose task is to instill patriotism and knowledge of the country and of IDF history.

Last week Yediot Aharonot reported that army kitchens, which for years have been kosher to accommodate religious soldiers, will now become convertible to glatt kosher, the standard of the Haredi community.

Tensions within the army over conflicts of values have always existed. I recall one of my sons, some 20 years ago, telling me how it was sufficient to drop a hint regarding his attitude toward the settlers to get himself excused from guard duty at a settlement near his basic training camp. Wise commanding officers can easily find ways to excuse religious soldiers from an entertainment evening when women sing. But frictions are increasing because the religious in the army are becoming not only more numerous--hardly an issue of contention insofar as they are good soldiers and religious-secular integration is a good thing--but more extreme, in effect demanding to ban women from contact with men and in some cases to disseminate extremist views regarding attitudes toward Arabs.

Last week, 19 retired major generals wrote an open letter to Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of the General Staff Beni Gantz demanding that they put a stop to the growing negativity in the IDF regarding women in uniform. The generals warned that the motivation for women to serve would be harmed and that "basic values of Israeli society" were at stake. One former IDF chief rabbi retorted that the generals were simply out of touch with the new reality in the IDF, where a growing proportion of combat troops and officers are religious and their values must be accommodated.

The problem is that accommodating those values appears to involve religious coercion and violation of some very basic Israeli national values. This, in turn, has already begun to have ramifications for Israel's security interests. 

The proliferation of national-religious settlers in the combat officer ranks already renders the IDF virtually useless for the task of physically dismantling settlements and removing settlers if and when an elected Israeli government wants to take this step. Nowadays, the occasional outpost that Barak does order dismantled is handled by the Israel Police, not the IDF. Whether the national-religious Orthodox establishment and its settlement movement are pushing combat duty for their youth out of pure patriotism or due to a conscious desire to ensure that the army will never dismantle settlements is an interesting question. On another level, during the Cast Lead Gaza campaign of late 2008-early 2009 there were reported instances of rabbis exhorting troops to treat the Arab enemy in ways that contradict IDF moral and legal standards. 

Then there is the fear that the increasing numbers of religious combat troops and officers, with their demands for inclusive religiosity in the ranks, will deter even more secular men from volunteering for combat units and persuade secular women to "opt out" of service (paradoxically, by declaring they are religious). This will further polarize an already fractured and schismatic Israeli society, thereby effectively weakening it.

Issues of religion and state have been a feature of Israeli public life almost from the start. Of the nearly 50 percent of Israelis who define themselves as non-religious (roughly another 25 percent are "traditional", 12 percent national-religious or Orthodox and 12 percent Haredi), not all are sensitive to issues of religious coercion  with regard to matters like public transportation on the Sabbath. But when it comes to the army, the ramifications of religious-secular friction are liable to be far more significant.