Defense Minister Ehud Barak was infuriated with the soldiers who held up an anti-evacuation placard during their division’s pledge of allegiance ceremony. This was indeed a grave act, yet the defense minister and army chief must first look into their own actions. They are no less at fault than these soldiers, and possibly even more so, and they must launch a process of self-examination in the military.
I happened to be present at the above-mentioned ceremony. My son was among the soldiers who pledged their allegiance at the austere Western Wall plaza where I too was sworn-in many years ago. I don’t remember much of my ceremony. After a long and arduous trek I could barely stand on my feet. However, I do recall that the ceremony was simple and brief, the event was emotional, and I was very proud to be part of the IDF.
The event I attended last week, on the other hand, was scary. There is no other word that would suffice to describe it. I do not wish to write too much about the usual IDF chaos, about the fact that there were no orderly seating arrangements and people pushed and shoved each other in order to get a glimpse of their sons, and not even about the boring speeches. As result of the overall mayhem, I did not even see the placard that was held up.
Yet what bothered me the most was the blatant religious content. During the brief ceremony, no fewer than three religious figures took the stages, all of them IDF rabbis if I’m not mistaken. They read prayers and biblical verses and spoke about the land being promised to Jewish people.
How would a Circassian, Druze, or Christian recruit (yes, there are quite a few of those) feel at a swear-in ceremony that sounds like the Jewish mirror image of Hezbollah ceremonies? Will they ever be able to feel this is their army too? Will they ever feel that they are part of the public whose duty it is to serve in the army and be loyal to the State?
Only religious Jews feel at homeHowever, the problem goes even deeper. The message conveyed in the ceremony, both openly and between the lines, is that the military is an arm of the settlement enterprise. The rabbis, the prayers, the songs, and the texts were almost entirely religious, and we can assume that the ceremony served as a brief reflection of the atmosphere that prevails later on during the service; an atmosphere that the parents don’t see.
It is no wonder then that soldiers at the Samson Division did not see their act as something anomalous. They simply assimilated into the general atmosphere. Even my young son, who did not grow up in a West Bank outpost, failed to understand why I was upset. “This is how it is in the army,” he said. “What’s your problem exactly?”
I do not speak out against religion here. I believe that the army should provide faithful Jews with the best possible service conditions, including synagogues and kosher food. Those who want it should also be granted separation between males and females where they serve. I also believe that Muslim soldiers need to be provided with suitable prayer areas, time for prayer, and the right conditions to fast during Ramadan. I also believe that Christian soldiers should be able to celebrate Christmas properly.
In addition, I endorse a pledge of allegiance using a Bible, as long as members of other religions and atheists will be sworn in according to their values, books, and symbols of faith (as is indeed the case.)
However, the army as an organization is supposed to be neutral and religion-free. It needs to be a place where anyone who lives in this country feels at home; a home that needs to be defended because it’s a good place to live in. To my regret, given the current atmosphere, only religious Jews feel that way.
The defense minister and top defense officials must embark on an in-depth examination of the slow process whereby the army’s character is changing. They need to reexamine the way religious figures are integrated in the establishment in general, and in swear-in ceremonies in particular. They should also create a binding text for pledge-of-allegiance ceremonies that would allow for, if we insist, a mention of God, yet avoid altogether blatant religious content.
Prof. Dror Ze'evi, the Department for Middle Eastern Studies, Ben-Gurion University