The soldiers' morale was at a nadir. During a mission to locate and destroy terrorists' weapons labs in the Zaitan neighborhood of Gaza City, six members of their Givati Brigade had been killed -- blown up by a bomb detonated underneath their armored personnel carrier. The local Arabs had snatched the soldiers' body parts, danced holding them aloft, dangled them in front of international TV cameras, and then spirited them away for ransom. Now the infantry unit was being ordered back into Zaitan to reclaim their comrades' body parts by house to house searches -- at the risk of sharing their gruesome fate.
Ten soldiers were huddled in an armored personnel carrier -- identical to the one that had been blown up -- rolling toward the Hamas stronghold. Six of the soldiers were religious. The four non-religious soldiers had overheard their religious comrade Neria uttering a prayer. Dispirited and fearful, they turned to Neria for some way to regenerate their moribund motivation.
The kipa-clad infantryman pulled a colorful, folded, laminated card from his pocket. On the outside was printed the credo of Judaism, "Shema Yisrael." On the inside, bordered by bright-colored drawings of holy sites throughout Israel, was "A Prayer before Going into Battle":
Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, enthroned on angels! You have commanded us in Your Torah, saying, "Listen, O Israel! Today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not break ranks before them. God your Lord is the One who is going with you. He will fight for you against your enemies, and He will deliver you." [Deut.20: 3-4]
…Be now with the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, the messengers of your people, who wage war today against their enemies. Strengthen us and give us courage. Take up our grievances, fight our battles. Fortify, protect, and shield us. Help us. And save us for the sake of Your kindness.
With Shema Yisrael as their rallying cry, the soldiers boldly leaped out and charged into battle.
It was exactly what the disheartened troops needed. Neria's religious friends pulled more of the laminated cards out of their pockets. In the dim light of the armored personnel carrier, all ten soldiers, in unison, recited the "Prayer before Going into Battle." The vehicle lurched to a stop in the middle of the terrorist stronghold. With Shema Yisrael as their rallying cry, the soldiers boldly leaped out and charged into battle. Not a single soldier was hurt in the operation.
WHAT HAPPENED TO LOVE OF THE LAND?
Neria and his friends had received the cards at a barbeque held by a fledgling organization dedicated to inspiring and educating soldiers in Jewish history and heritage. As the organization's mission statement proclaims: "Young Israeli soldiers are required to put their lives on the line every day. Many of them question the justice of their fight. Unfortunately, they don't feel a deep connection to their heritage or the Jewish people's right to the Land of Israel. This has significantly reduced their motivation. Our aim is to address this problem… because building morale saves lives."
Indeed, Israeli youth, for whom serving in the I.D.F. was once a proud and de rigueur rite of passage, are increasingly choosing not to serve at all. According to figures released in July of this year, 38% of eligible Israeli men and 40% of women are opting out of army service. Since Hareidi youth, who generally take Yeshiva exemptions, account for a mere 8% of the population, the alarming reality is that nearly a third of non-Hareidi Israeli young people are unwilling to risk their lives for… they don't know what.
Even among those who do serve, lack of "a deep connection to their heritage or the Jewish people's rights to the land of Israel" has seriously eroded morale. Noah Efron is a Tel Aviv resident who teaches at Bar Ilan University. His fervent Zionism inspired him to make aliyah from the United States and to enlist in the Israeli infantry in 1984. He served as a regular and reserve soldier until he was retired in 2000. In his book, Real Jews, Mr. Efron describes the flagging esprit de corps he witnessed and experienced in the Israeli army:
It is difficult to be viscerally proud while patrolling in the territories (though it is possible to feel satisfaction in protecting the lives of people you care about, in your jeep or in distant Tel Aviv)… Even for those who never doubt that such service enhances Israel's security, the dull depression of policing foreign and frightening landscapes tends to make one's patriotism more abstract, less immediate…
Refusing to answer a call to the reserves was almost unthinkable before 1980; now refusal has a certain chic, at least in some circles… In my unit, dozens of reservists found ways out-medical discharges (some real, some fictions), "hardship" discharges, psychological discharges, whatever. After two decades of dispiriting service, many Israelis -- on the right and the left -- are disenchanted with the army, with the government, with the whole damned country. Let someone else get pelted with rocks.
To be an Israeli in 2003 is a demoralizing affair. We are tired: tired of the Palestinians, tired of Arafat, tired of the bombs, tired of UN and European Union condemnations, tired of having so much of our daily wage taxed to buy guns and missiles, tired of the army reserves, tired of being hated, tired of going to bed and waking up to reports of kids -- Jewish kids, Palestinian kids -- watching their parents die or dying in their parents' arms. We are tired of our lives and tired of ourselves.
Of course, the "foreign and frightening landscapes" Mr. Efron refers to above are the areas of Judea and Samaria, districts abounding in Biblical history and sacred sites. In fact, all of Judaism's three holiest sites -- the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the Tomb of Mother Rachel in Bethlehem -- are located over the Green Line. How did these areas become "foreign" in the minds of Israelis like Mr. Efron? Whatever happened to "love of the Land of Israel," the Jewish value on which Zionism was based and to which Zionist pioneers -- and Jews throughout history -- resolutely dedicated their lives?
"Love of the Land of Israel" and other Jewish values have been deliberately expunged by "post-Zionism."
"Love of the Land of Israel" and other Jewish values have been deliberately expunged by "post-Zionism," a concerted campaign of secular Israeli academics, literati, and media personalities to replace Jewish and Zionist values with a commitment to universalism and democracy. As Yoram Hazony, head of Jerusalem's Shalem Center, wrote shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords:
The reason that the Golan Heights, Bethlehem and Jerusalem could be put on the negotiating block without pandemonium in the streets is the nearly total collapse of the Jewish nationalist ideology which built the state… These concessions signify abandoning the struggle to return to Jewish history which was the entire purpose of the Jewish state in the first place -- a calamity of unfathomable proportions.
In his book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul, Mr. Hazony provides abundant evidence of post-Zionism in Israeli cultural, educational, judicial, and military spheres. Among Israeli Jewish intellectuals, he cites a distinguished professor who has called for the addition of an Arab symbol on the Israeli flag, a prominent politician who has called for European courts to be given the authority to overturn Israeli law, and a highly-regarded novelist who called on Israeli Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam so as to make Israel a more "normal" state.
In 1994, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) appointed a committee headed by a professor at Tel Aviv University to draft a formal code of ethics, called "The Spirit of the IDF," which it touted as "the moral and normative identity card of the Israel Defense Forces… according to which every soldier… educates himself and his fellows." Nowhere in the code's 11 "values" and 34 "basic principles" does it refer to the Jewish state, the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition, or the Land of Israel. Instead, Israeli soldiers are bidden to put their lives on the line for the neutral and universal values of "tenacity, responsibility, integrity, personal example, human life, purity of arms, professionalism, discipline, loyalty, representation, and camaraderie."
When this code was distributed to the officers who were supposed to propagate it, the only objection it encountered was its conspicuous absence of "love of the land," which had been at the heart of the Zionist enterprise. It was "love of the land," according to Mr. Hazony, "that motivated IDF educational programs aimed at inculcating in the soldiers a familiarity with the historical and religious significance of the locations it was their job to defend. But members of the committee [which formulated the code] refused to reconsider its inclusion, explaining that one cannot teach someone to 'love' and that the value of 'love of the land' in any case amounted to the fetishization of an object."
A decade of education in the "Spirit of the IDF" bred the soldiers who were almost inert with depression and fear in the armored personnel carrier rolling inexorably to Zaitan. As Mr. Hazony describes his endless conversations with his fellow soldiers during reserve duty in the IDF:
The Jews of Israel are an exhausted people, confused and without direction. This is not to say that they are unwilling to fight. Israelis still agree that they will carry on their struggle if they must. But in no end of discussions, it was made clear to me that there was a vast gulf between their willingness to fight and sacrifice and their ability to understand why they should do so. Certainly, they all knew that we were at war… but as soon as the discussion skidded close to the reasons that it might be worth being in this fight, the screen went blank. Of what value is the Jewish people?… What is to be gained by joining in its struggle? Why should one sacrifice on its behalf? Why should the Jewish state exist at all? These are questions that you do not expect to hear answered at too high a level by every soldier in the IDF. But, on the other hand, without some answer as to what this was all about -- this people, its country, and the seemingly endless war -- no army can possibly keep fighting for very long.
NORMALCY VS JUDAISM
Ironically, the founding fathers of the Zionist Movement themselves laid the foundation for the present imbroglio. The impetus for Theodore Herzl and his followers to dedicate their lives to establishing a Jewish state was anti-Semitism, which, a half century before the Holocaust, loomed like a dark cloud over Europe. The state they struggled to found, however, was to be characterized by "normalcy." According to Herzl's own manifesto, it was to be a state like any other -- like France or Germany -- inhabited by Jewish residents. The Zionist Congress, much to the chagrin of its religious delegates, specified that Zionism had nothing to do with Judaism.
This was a generation which, by and large, had rejected religion as antiquated superstition (think Freud and Marx) and had replaced the old image of the Jew -- the pasty scholar poring over his books -- with "the new Jew," a suntanned, muscular, Zionist pioneer wielding a pick and a gun. Three decades after the founding of the State of Israel, however, the "new Jew" also did not pass the test of "normalcy." After all, normal Frenchmen and Germans in the post-modern era did not wield picks and certainly not guns. Thus, the Zionist ideal itself had to be sacrificed on the altar of "normalcy."
"While the Arabs have remained faithful to their ideology of the holiness of the land… Israel is ready to withdraw lightly from the lands that were the cradle of Judaism…"
In the wake of the signing away of most of Judea and Samaria in the Oslo Accords, left-leaning Israeli columnist Yoel Marcus lamented: "Our people has long since tired of bearing Zionism on its shoulders generation after generation. While the Arabs have remained faithful to their ideology of the holiness of the land… Israel is ready to withdraw lightly from the lands that were the cradle of Judaism in exchange for personal safety and a 'normal' life."
Gidon Samet, another left-wing columnist, responded to Marcus's lament with a joyful embrace of the "normalcy" which was supposed to inundate Israel in the wake of the Oslo "peace agreement": "Madonna and Big Macs are only the most peripheral of examples of… a 'normalcy' that means, among other things, the end of the terrible fear of everything that is foreign and strange."
Yoram Hazony, commenting on this dialogue, observes dryly: "'Normal' people, so the argument goes, do not live in fear of being blown up on buses. They do not hold grudges over crimes committed years ago, and don't spend their time fighting over real or imagined burial places of real or imagined ancestors. They just go to pubs and eat pasta."
We are witnessing in Israel today the victory of "normalcy" over the distinguishing particulars of being a Jew. The existential problem, however, is that while Jews were throughout history willing to sacrifice their lives for Jewish values, such as Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people, "normal people" do not willingly sacrifice their lives for universal values such as "tenacity, responsibility, and professionalism."
Why were Jews throughout the ages willing to sacrifice themselves for God, Torah, and the Land of Israel? A landmark study of the "Beliefs, Observances, and Values among Israeli Jews 2000," commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation and conducted by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute, sheds light on this question. A cross-section of Israeli Jews was surveyed and asked to define themselves religiously as either religious, traditional, non-religious, or anti-religious. They were then presented with a list of values and asked to mark those they considered "very important." As the study summarized its findings:
There is a perceptible difference in the attitudes of the religious, the traditional, and the non-religious toward individual freedoms, on the one hand, and social and civic altruism, on the other. Religious and traditional respondents are committed, for the most part, to the collective… whereas the prime commitment of non-religious and anti-religious respondents is to personal freedom of choice. (p.11)
The value of individual freedom, so cherished by the post-Zionists, does not lend itself to sacrifice, because if the individual dies, what good is his freedom? The value of the collective good, on the other hand, is bigger and more enduring than the individual. Ideals such as the uniqueness of the Jewish people striving to fulfill its mission as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" in the Holy Land are ultimate values which confer meaning to life and immortality after death. Soldiers imbued with such values feel that they have something beyond themselves to live -- and to die -- for.
The worrisome dearth of motivation among non-religious soldiers in the IDF is a result of the deliberate effort to de-Judaize Israeli culture. That private organizations have to labor to inspire and educate soldiers to appreciate their heritage is nothing less than a valiant attempt at CPR on a patient who's been killed by his own doctor.
Jewish nationalism without Judaism is like the Tamaguchi fad of several years ago. These "virtual pets" so prized by ten-year-olds were small, palm-sized computers. The "pet-owner" had to press various buttons every day in order to feed, walk, and clean up from her "pet." If she neglected this care, the "pet" would die. My fifth-grade daughter was elated when we finally bought her a Tamaguchi. After several days of caring for her virtual pet, however, her enthusiasm started to wane. By the time the "pet" died of neglect two weeks later, my daughter barely noticed.
Just as the Tamaguchi owner had a pet, but not a living animal, so Zionism devoid of Judaism is an ideology without organs, sinews, and the living pulse of what has always animated the Jewish people: love of God, Torah, and the Land of Israel. That's why, like the virtual pet, it was fated to die of neglect engendered by boredom.
The tragedy and the promise of the current situation is that all it took was a laminated card with a prayer and a Torah quote to turn despair into zeal, fear into courage. As the final line on the card, quoting Psalm 60, proclaimed: "With God we will emerge valiantly." Can there be any more potent words of inspiration?