Since the late 1980s, Religious Zionists have joined elite IDF special forces units and have become officers in combat units in significant numbers. Currently, well over one third of the junior officers in these units are Religious Zionists, as are approximately 50 percent of the candidates in the combat officer training course. This is particularly true in the ground forces. Increasing numbers of Religious Zionist officers are entering the upper echelons of command, becoming commanders of combat regiments and brigades. This is in contrast to the situation that obtained before the late 1980s when the IDF’s entire high command and its elite combat units were almost entirely composed of secular troops15.
One of the reasons for this development is that the previous reservoir of manpower for elite and combat positions in the IDF – the secular (mainly Ashkenazic) middle class – has in recent years provided less manpower than it had previously. The explanations for this are many and complex, but one central reason is the cultural and social change that has come over a good part of Israeli society, especially the secular middle class. This sector of society has moved from what Shafir and Peled called a “republican citizenship discourse” in which contribution to the common good earned one high status and social and material rewards to a “liberal citizenship discourse.” In the latter, individuals are encouraged to achieve rewards and benefits individualistically, through competition in the economic and other marketplaces. Accordingly, military service and officership in combat units has become somewhat devalued for this population16.
Thus, the army was willing to have other high quality population groups fill the vacuum. The group that did in fact fill this vacuum were the Religious Zionists. In order to do this they developed a new organizational form – the mechina or pre-Army preparatory program. The mechina was designed to allow Religious Zionist youth (first and mainly males) to take leadership and elite roles while remaining loyal Orthodox Jews and dedicated to the Religious Zionist nationalist ideology. Thus, the mechina program enables the Religious Zionist sector to influence first the military and ultimately Israeli society as a whole.
In the mechina program, unlike the Hesder Yeshiva, students study for one or two years and then complete full mandatory military service of three years or more. Unlike the Hesder program, the mechina curriculum does not place heavy emphasis on Talmud. Rather, the emphasis is on National Religious ideology and theology (mainly the writings of Rabbi A.I. Kook and his school), Bible, and Halacha. The avowed aim is not to prepare Talmidei Chachamim but rather to prepare young men for leadership positions in the army and in society. Most of the graduates are encouraged to enlist in elite units and to enter officer training courses. The mechina is part of the attempt to bring worldly national life (i.e. the military) under religious regulation, and thus imbue it with religious and Divine ideals. In 2013 there were about 1,400 young people in 21 Religious Zionist mechina programs17.
To one extent or another, this program of imbuing the IDF with religious ideals seems to be succeeding. There seems to be a gradual process whereby the place and the weight of (Jewish Orthodox) religion and religious authorities appears to be increasing. Observers (including very critical ones) have shown: 1) how the Jewish religion gradually defines the collective identity of the army; 2) how orders and instructions are gradually being made to fit religious requirements vis-a-vis troop deployment in the occupied territories, the place of women, and behavior on the Sabbath; 3) Religious authorities gradually play a role, alongside the formal commanders, in shaping and regulating the army’s actions and undertakings18. Furthermore, until recently, troops were also exposed to religious education and socialization including with respect to military ethics and rules of engagement.
It would seem that the current high command under the leadership of Leut. General Eizenkot is attempting to curtail, to some extent, religious influence in the military. Chief of Staff Eisenkott removed the Jewish Identity Unit from the Army Rabbinate in January 2016. He also appointed a Chief Army Rabbi, Brigadier Gen. Rabbi Eyal Krim, who made it clear that he would adhere to the traditional norms and command structures of the IDF (including being inclusive of all soldiers regardless of faith, persuasion, or sexual orientation.) This move, though, is being met with resistance on the part of some of the leaders of the mechinot. (See below regarding R. Yigal Levenstein’s speech).19