The orders for the Givati brigade, an elite infantry unit, came in a typed, single-page letter.
“History has chosen us to spearhead the fight against the terrorist Gazan enemy who curses, vilifies and abominates Israel’s God,” Col. Ofer Winter, the unit’s commanding officer, wrote in the letter to his troops. He ended with a biblical quote promising divine protection for Israel’s warriors on the battlefield.
The letter quickly circulated on social media and from there to the press. Secular Israelis condemned it, saying it broke a decades-old convention that kept religion out of military missions.
Two years on, the letter remains a symbol of a profound shift within Israeli society: the rising power and reach of religious nationalists. The change has set up a battle for the type of country Israel should be, a battle between the country’s liberals and its more religious nationalist camp.
In its early years, Israel’s two main centres of power – the military and the government – were dominated by the secular and mostly left-wing elite who had founded the state in 1948. But over the past decade or so a new generation of leaders that combines religion and nationalism has emerged.
Religious Zionism differs from secular Zionism in its historical perspective and messianic undertones. For Religious Zionists, caring for places like Jewish settlements in the West Bank – the biblical bedrock of Judaism, but also claimed by Palestinians as their home – is a way of fulfilling a religious obligation and building the Jewish state.
The community, sometimes referred to as the ‘national religious,’ has increased its presence in both government and the civil service. This year, for the first time ever, the heads of the national police, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet domestic security service are all Religious Zionists.
Nowhere, though, has the shift been more pronounced than in the military. Most soldiers in the Israeli army are secular or observant Jews, though Druze and Bedouin Arab citizens serve as well. But over the past two decades, academic studies show, the number of Religious Zionist officers in the Israeli Defense Force has seen a huge increase. The military has also felt the growing influence of rabbis who have introduced matters of faith and politics to the battlefield.
Some politicians and military leaders have begun to push back.
In January, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot announced he would remove a 15-year-old unit dedicated to “Jewish Awareness” from the military rabbinate – the department in charge of providing religious services within the ranks. The Jewish Awareness Branch has periodically drawn criticism from both inside and outside the military for pushing an ideological, right-wing and religious agenda. Some secular Israelis worry that too much religion in the military may lead to soldiers questioning whom they should obey: their officer or God.
In a letter sent to IDF officers and published by the army, Eisenkot staked out the Israeli Defence Force’s position: A military divided over politics and religion can hardly fulfill its mission. “The IDF is the people’s army and includes a wide spectrum of Israeli society,” he wrote.
“A change is needed with the aim of keeping the IDF a stately army in a democratic country, nurturing that which unites its soldiers.”
Religious Zionist politicians and rabbis vowed to block the change and have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose governing coalition depends partly on support from such voters. Netanyahu himself is secular, though many of his inner circle of advisers and government appointments are Religious Zionists.
The army chief has signalled he does not intend to back down. On April 3, the army said it was moving the Jewish Awareness Branch to the military’s Personnel Directorate, even if operational details were still being worked out.
Religious Zionists make up just 10 percent of Israel’s population, a similar size to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, though that group is far less integrated in Israeli society and traditionally shuns army service.
Rabbis have long served in Israel’s military, but historically they handled logistic issues, such as adherence to Jewish dietary laws. That began to change in the early 2000s. The military rabbinate demanded and won a new role connecting soldiers to their Jewish roots and infusing them with fighting spirit based on faith and centuries-old tradition.
The rabbinate established the Jewish Awareness Branch, which offers soldiers tours and lectures on Judaism and lessons that weave together religious teachings with military values like leadership, camaraderie and self-sacrifice.
The Israeli military does not hold figures classifying its soldiers as secular or observant. But a detailed study by the Defense Ministry journal Maarachot showed that by 2008, the percentage of national religious infantry officer cadets had increased tenfold to 26 percent from 2.5 percent in 1990.
More recent research by specialists such as Reuven Gal, chairman of the Israeli Association of Civil-Military Studies, shows that trend continuing: Religious Zionists now account for between a third and half of army cadets.
“This is over-representation,” Gal said.
“The IDF is the Israel Defence Force, not the Jewish Defence Force. It has religious and secular soldiers. If its values come from the rabbinate (The Jewish Awareness Branch), that’s warped. It’s wrong.”
Atop a hill in the West Bank in late January, a group of young men kicked into gear. A few hit the ground for push-ups, others did pull-ups on a series of metal bars, while a dozen jogged along a path that wound down from their seminary past the red-roofed houses of the Jewish settlement, Eli.
Inside the seminary, the Bnei David academy, more young men sat in pairs studying the books by Jewish scholars that lined the classroom walls.
Israel’s first military prep school, the Bnei David was established in 1988 to encourage Religious Zionist youth to take on meaningful roles in the conscript army at a time when the military had noticed a decline in recruits’ motivation.
The school boasts that nearly all its graduates volunteer for combat, half of them in elite units. About 40 percent of its alumni, Ofer Winter among them, become officers. The military did not respond to a request to interview Winter, who has been promoted since the Gaza war.
“We see military service as a great mitzvah. It is a civil duty, but also a great mitzvah from the Torah,” said Netanel Elyashiv, a rabbi at the seminary.
One Bnei David graduate, an officer in an elite unit, said it was right for Israel’s national religious to do their bit for the country. “It’s not just patriotism; it is part of something far more spiritual, geared toward the future,” said the officer, who has just signed on for additional 10 years of service. “It is linked to deeper roots and a sense of being an emissary.”
Bnei David is now one of 46 military academies, half of which are religious.
Critics such as Prof. Yagil Levy, who teaches civil-military relations at the Open University of Israel, see Religious Zionism’s growing clout in the military as part of a wider push to keep strong Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Religious Zionists are now the main backers of Israel’s settler movement.
Disappointment over the 2005 Gaza disengagement, when Israel pulled its troops and about 9,000 settlers out of the Gaza Strip, drove the Religious Zionists to seek more powerful positions in politics, media and particularly in the security establishment, Levy said.
“The army is an important public arena in which they must fulfill a meaningful, active role … so that the shame of the 2005 disengagement does not recur.”
But Rabbi Eli Sadan, Bnei David’s founder, rejects such criticisms. In a paper published in January, he said Religious Zionists had no desire to take over the military. He also said Levy and other critics were spreading hatred toward a community deeply devoted to the people of Israel.
Whatever the Jewish Awareness Branch’s intent, some lawmakers and military officers have grown increasingly worried about it.
In 2012, Israel’s State Comptroller, an official watchdog, criticised rabbinate pamphlets that circulated among troops during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. The comptroller was particularly scathing of one pamphlet, which said that “not one millimeter” of land should be relinquished and that battle sometimes required cruelty to the enemy.
The growing concern of liberal Israelis was captured in an exchange in February in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting, called by Religious Zionist lawmakers on behalf of the Jewish Awareness Branch.
Lt. Aharon Karov, a Religious Zionist commander wounded in the 2008-2009 war, came to the rabbis’ defense when he explained how he had been injured and its effect on his squad’s morale.
“(It) was a head wound, nose, eye, mouth, I didn’t look human and my platoon saw me at that moment,” Karov told the committee. “My company commander asked himself, ‘What do I do with this platoon? They don’t want to keep on fighting.’”
The commander called the rabbinate, Karov said, which immediately dispatched a rabbi to Gaza. “He gave them the fighting spirit, reminded them why we were there, why we must go on, and at that moment my soldiers understood from within and went on fighting,” Karov said.
“That’s very bad,” replied lawmaker Omer Bar-Lev, who is the son of a former army chief and is himself a retired colonel. “If without a rabbi your soldiers were unmotivated, that’s very bad.”
The influence of Religious Zionism has grown in government as well as the military.
The national religious vote goes mainly to two parties: Netanyahu’s Likud and the Religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi, which revamped itself under new young leadership ahead of the 2013 election. Bayit Yehudi more than doubled its parliament seats in that vote, to 12 in the 120-seat chamber.
In the 2015 election, Bayit Yehudi lost four seats to Likud, falling to eight. But it won greater gains inside the coalition government, for the first time holding the senior Justice Ministry, two other ministries and two security cabinet seats.
Bayit Yehudi has changed considerably under its 44-year-old leader, Naftali Bennett. In the past it mainly safeguarded narrow sectarian interests. Now it openly wants to shape the country and has had some success doing so.
The party objects to the creation of a Palestinian state and wants Israel to formally annex most of the West Bank. It toughened a law that means potential land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians must be put to a vote, and wrote another that limits the release of Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis.
Most Religious Zionists oppose handing land to the Palestinians. As well as religious motivations, they share Netanyahu’s concerns that such a move would be a security risk.
Since the 2015 election, competition over the national religious vote has seen Netanyahu shift further right, often following Bennett’s lead.
“We want a state more connected to its roots,” Bennett told Reuters. “I am a Zionist, Jewish and proud. This is my land for the past 3,800 years. That’s the set of values.”
Bennett said that after the Holocaust, Religious Zionism was in “survival mode.” It began to gain more influence from the 1970s, he said. “Now we are in the third stage, in which we see Religious Zionism in leadership positions in all realms in Israel.”
Yedidia Stern, Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and himself a Religious Zionist, remembers the traumatic years that followed the assassination in 1995 of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Religious Zionist law student. Rabin had promised to hand back land to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo peace accords, upsetting many Religious Zionists.
“The entire sector was labelled a danger to rule of law, irrational, insurgent. Religious-Zionism became borderline illegitimate,” he said. “Twenty years later, we’re in the opposite position: The entire rule of law is in the hands of Religious Zionism. It’s astounding.”