The Ten Commandments of Israel’s Religious Soldiers
When it’s okay for a soldier to flip a light switch
Israel has always prided itself on having a people’s army in which all men—and women—are supposed to be drafted. The exception has been the nation’s ultra-Orthodox community, which was spared from conscription when Israel was founded in 1948 in order to replenish the ranks of religious scholars decimated by the Nazis.
But from a small group of religious scholars and students, the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi—“those who tremble before God”—are now 10 percent of Israel’s population and growing. Many secular or less religious Israelis complain the haredi accept government subsidies without performing their military duty in the Israel Defense Forces.
Thus the Israeli Knesset has passed a law that would draft some haredi. The problem is how to implement it. Ultra-Orthodox believe in strict separation of the sexes, but the IDF is about one-third female. They do not work on Shabbat, the Sabbath, which runs from Friday night to Saturday night. Unfortunately, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and other enemies do.
“The IDF admits to the difficulties of catering to haredi soldiers and has produced an instructions manual for the battalion, in an attempt to solve a few of the dilemmas faced by religious soldiers who participate in operational actions on Shabbat,” according to Israeli news site Ynet.
The IDF has printed a checklist—a sort of military Ten Commandments—to help haredi soldiers to conduct operations without violating their beliefs. Some of its recommendations:
• Because observant Jews will not turn on electrical appliances during Shabbat, the IDF says “a fan may be turned on only if the temperature may harm the operational status of the unit.”
• “One should not push the gas pedal unnecessarily nor drive more than is required,” the IDF warns. “Driving is only permitted for security incidents and medical emergency.” In addition, “driving to a guard post on the far-side of the base is not permitted, and the soldier should consult with the rabbi on the correct procedure for larger bases.”
• Before Shabbat begins, haredi soldiers should change radio batteries and refuel vehicles, prepare guard duty rosters and then call their parents to wish them “Shabbat shalom,” meaning “a good Sabbath.”
• “Announce ahead of time that you do not answer non-operational calls on Shabbat,” the IDF advises. “If there is any doubt as to the nature of the call, the soldier must answer.”
• “Determine beforehand whether the weekend missions are of a civilian nature—like securing tourists and reinforcing other units,” the IDF advises.
• “Flak jacket may contain food, snacks, Torah, map, binoculars, compass, and night-vision gear, but not sunglasses, keys and wallets,” the IDF notes.
In theory, drafting the ultra-Orthodox is a great idea. In a society where military service is a prerequisite for civilian career advancement, this would let the often poverty-stricken haredi pick up skills and connections.
However, letting low-ranking soldiers decide whether a mission is military or civilian in nature seems an invitation to confusion and trouble. If religious soldiers can avoid certain duties during Shabbat, then more secular soldiers might have to pick up the slack.
Nonetheless, just because ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t work on Shabbat doesn’t mean they won’t fight. It is a tenet of Judaism that one can violate the Sabbath or holy days to save a life or to defend oneself. The Arabs launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, 1973, and still lost the war.
Finally, lest anyone think that military-religious conflict is unique to Israel, some Americans worry that that the U.S. military is dominated by fundamentalist Christians who aggressively push their beliefs. And of course, Islam is a major influence in many Middle Eastern armies.
With all the violence in the Middle East, perhaps everyone there should take a weekend break.