Israel settlements: rabbis say soldiers' loyalty to God trumps army orders

In an escalating standoff over potential Israel settlement evacuations, dozens of teachers in government-affiliated religious seminaries signed a declaration on Thursday that could reverse long-time support for the secular state.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Israeli soldiers close a gate in the separation barrier as activists, not seen, protest against it on the other side, in the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah, Friday.

In Israel, a standoff is escalating between the Israeli defense establishment and religious nationalists over the possible evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. On Thursday, a group of rabbis published a letter saying a soldiers' loyalty to the divine takes precedence over their commanders.

The declaration was signed by dozens of teachers in government-affiliated religious seminaries – known as "hesder'' yeshivas – after Defense Minister Ehud Barak took the unprecedented step earlier this week of cutting ties with a hesder yeshiva because its dean, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, openly advocates refusing of orders in case of an evacuation.

One of the signatories, hesder yeshiva Rabbi Ariel Bareli, told Israel Radio that faith trumps implementing democratic adopted government policy in the event of a clash.

"You must understand, that the desire of the nation isn't meaningful for someone who believes in the creator,'' he said.

Split allegiance of Israel's religious nationalists

As pressure increases on the government to curtail and eventually remove many West Bank settlements, the dispute highlights the growing political and spiritual dilemma of a split allegiance on the part of religious nationalists, the spearhead of the settlement movement.

Though they have always hewed to a strict interpretation of Jewish religious law, the national religious rabbis taught loyalty to Israel's secular state because it is considered a precursor of religious redemption.

The hesder yeshiva system harnessed that loyalty by allowing nationalist religious youths to split time between spiritual study and military service. The system has become an important channel for funneling highly motivated soldiers into the military.

'Sensitive moment': Rare contradiction between state policy, Jewish law

But that loyalty to the secular state is being tested by the likelihood that religious soldiers might be forced to violate what they consider a divine prohibition against ceding parts of the biblical land of Israel.

"For decades the national religious never saw a contradiction between the policy of the state and the halacha [Jewish law]. The [goals] were identical,'' says Yair Ettinger, a reporter for the Haaretz newspaper who covered Israel's evacuation of Gaza settlements in 2005. "It's become much harder for the rabbis to square between the state and the [Jewish law]. This is a very sensitive moment.''

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