The rise of Israel's pious warriors

Some rabbis say soldiers should ignore orders to evacuate Gaza.

Inside a stone citadel atop a panoramic hilltop, prospective Israeli soldiers at the Beit Yatir religious military prep school consult the Talmud on whether they should follow orders to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

"In the Bible they have the same problem," says principal Moshe Hager, retelling the story of one of King David's generals who ignored an order to put down a rebellion and was executed for it. "We are speaking about these problems all the time."

When Mr. Hager's pupils are drafted into the army later this year, they may well find themselves caught in a firestorm that pits faith against fidelity to the army. If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon orders the military to carry out the withdrawal, it will be challenged by the rulings of some revered rabbis who say that observant soldiers must disobey a directive to dismantle settlements.

As recently as a decade ago, the predicament would have affected a tiny fraction of Israel's combat soldiers. But with the success of prep schools like Beit Yatir, there's been a dramatic increase in the percentage of religious soldiers taking up frontline assignments and joining the officer corps.

Hager founded Beit Yatir 14 years ago to help observant high school graduates better integrate into an Israeli military, which was seen as secularizing institution. By combining a year of Jewish text instruction with physical workouts, schools like Beit Yatir aspired to equip pupils with the moral and physical tools to serve alongside the sons of Israel's secular kibbutz farming collectives who dominated the army's combat units.

Though the army says it doesn't keep count, observers say "national religious" soldiers account for about one-fourth of combat soldiers and one-third of the junior commanders - numbers well beyond their 15 percent representation within Israel's general population.

"It's not that all the army is religious and the kibbutzniks have left, but it is a change that the army has to take into account," says Amos Harel, a military correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz.

Settler leaders appeared to take advantage of that shift when the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza, recently warned of a crisis of insubordination if Mr. Sharon orders the dismantling of Jewish settlements without a national referendum. While the Yesha Council condemns insubordination, a fringe group said this month that it has collected thousands of signatures from so-called "refuseniks."

"According to the Torah, Israel is forbidden to relinquish territories," says Asher Ben Yosef, a reserve soldier who signed the petition. "Maybe I will go to jail ... but I'll be happy that I did something on behalf of the land of Israel."

An army spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, predicts the number of right-wing dissenters would be "marginal." But in a sign that it may be worried about a rash of insubordination, the army said Tuesday that it plans to disband units made up exclusively of graduates of special "hesder" yeshivas - programs that allow observant soldiers to serve in segregated religious units for a shortened tour of duty. The army denies any correlation.

Some soldiers admit that they're on the fence. Yossi Hazan, a 34-year-old rabbi and reserve paratrooper, says he instructs pupils at Beit Yatir because instilling an appreciation of the biblical land and Torah helps make better soldiers. An evacuation order, however, would trigger a dilemma between his allegiance to the military and a desire to avoid an internecine conflict.

"These two values clash," he says. "I, myself, don't know what I would do."

About 75 pupils study at Beit Yatir, one of 14 religious prep schools that feed some 1,000 soldiers a year into the army's regular force of 185,000. Most sign up for elite infantry units. In the 1960s and 70s, observant soldiers were exceedingly rare in such outfits. Though Israelis revered combat soldiers, religious youths usually preferred studying in yeshiva seminaries rather than joining the overwhelmingly secular commando forces.

That began to change in the 1980s as a vanguard of right-wing religious settlers led the expansion of Israeli communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The opening of the religious prep schools in the 1990s answered a growing demand among observant Jews to serve in elite units and coincided with the promotion of Israel's first observant general.

When Bentsion Gruber began attending army conferences for reserve commanders a decade ago, he and one other religious officer would search for a prayer service in surrounding hotels. Now, some 40 percent of participants are observant, enough for three separate prayer quorums. "The army used to be the social elite, and the religious were in other places," he says. "When the elite moved to business, the religious moved into the army."

Mr. Gruber, an outspoken critic of the right-wing "refuseniks," worries about a possible rift between the military and religious soldiers. "The army will say, 'OK, we understand, you're educating a fifth column. You are educating people who say on one hand they're listening to the army and on the other hand say they are listening to the rabbis,'" he says. "[The prep schools] are in a trap. They're talking out of both sides of their mouth."

Back in an office decorated with pictures of rabbis and army generals, Hager summarizes his Bible lesson on disobeying orders.

"There are two legitimate opinions," he says, citing conflicting commentary from the Jewish medieval philosopher Maimonides and a 19th-century Lithuanian rabbinic scholar that supports the refuseniks and the army, respectively.

But when pressed about what he would do if he were called up to aid the evacuation, Hager is unequivocal. Instead of heeding the order, he plans to stand with the Gaza settlers resisting the army. "I will be [there]," he says.

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