Lock and Load: Theology, Recruitment and Interruptions

by Samuel Mellish

For those who read our previous article, it will be apparent that I am not favourable towards Israeli foreign policy. The unnecessary harm it is causing, disproportionate to the sum of provocation, is impossible to justify. Yet, I am sympathetic towards Israel’s need to establish well-resourced and inevitably strong security institutions, in a region historically hostile towards its existence. It is from this point of departure that we can begin to legitimately discuss a theological issue arising in the IDF’s recruitment process.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee recently convened to review the Authority’s proposal to restructure the process of exempting Orthodox-Zionist girls upon religious grounds. Currently, schoolgirls send their exemptions to rabbinical courts or directly to the IDF. The proposal, in contrast, advocates for the introduction of religious courts into schools, in front of which declarations of religion would be made, providing exemptions.

However, despite the voices championing this as a move towards efficiency, in reality, if implemented, the Knesset would be creating a space in which theological concerns far outweighed those of recruitment and security. On a backdrop of Orthodox-Zionist institutions criticising female enlistment, and the words of Ram Zahavi – director of religious education in the Education Ministry – that Orthodox-Zionist schools are bound by halachic (the rabbinate’s ruling, prohibiting girls enlisting), the removal of anonymity will be powerful. In this crucible 17-year-old girls will be asked to either affirm their faith or plot a different path, in front of prying judges, and inevitably their teachers and peers. I have often been astonished at the power of religion, especially on a personal level. Distinctively, religion permeates an individual’s whole life, providing theological directions for all scenarios. It is not a trivial matter, and indeed, within such religious schools will be many times amplified. How then, could a 17-year-old publicly say no, potentially undermining the theological status quo? Will their peers ostracize them? Will they be ridiculed? Will they no longer conform? Regardless, this is what will cross their mind when appearing in front of the magistrate. It is true that the numbers of Orthodox-Zionist soldiers are increasing, and that the IDF is committed to allow them to continue to express their interpretation of Judaism whilst on active duty, and yet with the making of enlistment public, it seems theology will inevitably triumph over recruitment.

But we are not yet done. Theologies, very much like societies, are active, even living, in that they are not static. In 2015 the number of enlisted Orthodox-Zionist women doubled to around 2000, despite the direction proposed by both religious and secular institutions. Such an increase suggests that the theological expression of these bodies is being partially challenged by competing narratives, and thus interrupted, allowing some to maintain their religious identities within the confines of the IDF. If it were parents, TV, social media, or none of the above, the interruption is obviously powerful and unlikely to acquiesce. Indeed, these instances are not unique to IDF recruitment, but are evident globally. My own experiences of some right-wing evangelical congregations in the UK scream of a theology fighting back against constant interruption. So we are beginning to experience many disruptions, in particular, as social media allows us to generate new thoughts, and connect with new people, producing a sense of inevitability about our theology. As the number of Orthodox-Zionist female soldiers increases in the IDF, the theologies of the world continue to clash, providing an opening for more tolerant, inclusive thought. As the shore cannot outrun the tide, nor can antiquated theologies hide from the rest of humanity.

Israel-06905 – Israeli Army‘ by Dennis Jarvis is licensed under CC by-SA 2.0