Converting IDF into religious forces

May 21, 2014
Sarah Benton

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers being sworn into a special religious IDF unit. Photo by Noam Moskowitz/Flash90

Israeli Security Services Dominated by Orthodox Jews, Settler Sympathizers

By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
May 17, 2014

There is much talk in the media about the heinous acts of hate and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers. They call them price tag attacks, but that doesn’t do them justice. They’re acts of terror, Jewish terrorism. I’ve also written here about the absolute ineffectiveness of the Israeli security apparatus in combating these attacks. No less than a former Shin Bet and Mossad chief have together derided the performance of Yoram Cohen, the current Shabak chief. I’ve similarly written here that the impunity of the terrorists isn’t an accident. The State doesn’t want to capture the attackers nor stop the terror. In effect, the Israeli government (and hence, the State itself) tacitly endorses terrorism.

There are many reasons for this ambivalence of the security services. But one that has never been mentioned outside the Israeli media is the religious and political background of those who run these agencies. They are, almost without an exception, Orthodox nationalists. In some cases they are, or have been settlers themselves. In discussing the insularity of the Shin Bet and its tendency to produce work tailor-made to the proclivities of its primary client, the prime minister, Amir Oren wrote:

The situation in the Shin Bet security service is worst of all, with three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.

…Despite silent internal foment, Shin Bet’s leaders are recruiting and promoting in their own image, and middle-level managers, therefore, see this as a model to emulate. The annual evaluation of Shin Bet employees now includes an arbitrary question, infuriating in its ambiguousness: Does the employee “act in accordance with a Zionist value system”? The Shin Bet is now filled with religious employees, much greater than their percentage in the population. Religious women doing national civilian service receive priority over secular women soldiers for interesting intelligence posts, and many remain in the Shin Bet after their voluntary period is over.

In other words, Shin Bet personnel do not reflect the demographic composition of Israeli society; but they do reflect the views of the settler movement, which they are sworn to police. It’s really a built-in conflict of interest. A recipe for failure and dysfunction. If you don’t want the fox eating the chickens you don’t leave the coop wide-open for him to climb in. Israel clearly wants the fox eating the chickens.

Amir Rappoport also writes in Maariv about a “quiet ferment” inside the intelligence agencies over the domination of what’s knownn as the “national-religious camp” (Orthodox pro-settler). It’s widely believed that to rise in the ranks you have to reflect the views and background of your superiors. If they wear a knitted skullcap and you don’t, you’re out of luck. Such homogeneity can happen in any large organization. But when it happens in an intelligence organization whose recommendations involve life and death decisions and the potential fate of the nation–the impact of such self-selection can be catastrophic.

 Rabbi blesses soldier before he climbs back into his armoured vehicle. Photo by Nir Kafri

I’ve often complained here about the narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination of Israeli military-intelligence strategists. Either they see threats that don’t exist; or they refuse to threats where they do exist. This phenomenon of a work force heavily slanted both religiously and ideologically toward right-wing nationalist views, is a perfect storm waiting to happen.

As an example, he notes that the expected next head of IDF intelligence (Aman) comes from an Orthodox Jewish background and his family hails from the Revisionist camp of right-wing Zionism. Rappoport notes that scuttlebutt says that this appointment was directly supported by the prime minister himself, who never is involved in decisions on the appointment of officers below the rank of chief of staff. But given Netanyahu’s long history in the Revisionist movement (his father was Jabotinsky’s secretary), it’s expected that he would offer more than a helping hand to “one of his own.”

How can a pro-settler IDF act professionally and legally when policing the West Bank? Above, the Facebook page created by soldiers to support their ‘right’ to point loaded weapons in the face of West Bank Palestinians. Video footage emerged in April of one of kicking, swearing, and pointing a cocked weapon at Palestinian youths during a confrontation in the West Bank.

This belies the historic image of the IDF as a professional, non-political army. In the past, officers may’ve had political views, but they never expressed them overtly during service. Only after retirement would they join a party and accept appointments as a minister. Now, the word on the street is that some of the most sensitive posts are offered out of pure political considerations. No surprise to the cynical among us. But for some Israelis, it is jarring to learn of this Brave New World.

The current Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, comes from the same national-religious background. He lives in Ramot, a neighborhood in occupied Jerusalem (conquered in 1967 and annexed by Israel). As I’ve written here, he wasn’t Yuval Diskin’s choice for the job. Instead, Yitzhak Ilan was the top choice until the settler rabbis and their champion intervened informing Bibi of their dislike of Ilan. They wanted someone more simpatico with their world view. As a result, they got Cohen, someone who can’t seem to catch a Jewish terrorist if his life depended on it.

Speculation has begun about who might succeed Cohen in 2016, when his tenure ends. There is a competition between two senior unit heads. Neither of their names had ever been reported until I did so in the above-linked post. One of them is Roni Alsheikh, who serves as Yoram Cohen’s chief of staff. Like Cohen, Alsheikh is Orthodox and Mizrahi (Cohen is of Afghan origin and Alsheikh, Yemenite). The latter lived for many years in the settlement of Kochav HaShahar though he now lives in central Israel. I profiled him in that post:

Alsheikh joined Shabak in the late 1980s as an interrogator. If he gets the top job he’ll be the first to rise through the ranks as an interrogator – most previous directors ran Palestinian spies in the field. Though he’s known to have used torture in cases of alleged “ticking bombs“, he’s not considered one of the goons who use brute force to extract confessions from detainees. Instead, he mostly used his wits during interrogations, and he believes it’s better being (as Talmud Yerushalmi says) “the head of the foxes than the tail of the lions” (hence his nickname).

Shall we bet on how effective Alsheikh will be in pursuing Jewish terrorists?

Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen with skullcap, and Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo with cigarette in Jerusalem, May 2011. Cohen was forced on Shit Bet as its leader after pressure from ‘settler rabbis’. Photo by Emil Salman

The bettors among Israelis have put their money on Yossi Cohen as the next head of the Mossad after Tamir Pardo’s term ends. Cohen, who served as a visiting fellow at WINEP before being appointed to his current job as national security advisor, is also national-religious. Rappoport concludes:

In the next year or so, it’s expected that the heads of Aman, Shabak and Mossad will all be from the national-religious camp…There’s no doubt that it’s of vital importance to Netanyahu who heads these agencies. While prime ministers in the past have all sought to have intelligence heads who were shared their background or world view, Bibi is unlike them in that he’s succeeded.

Yet another Maariv article noted (Hebrew) not only that the numbers of knitted skullcaps has vastly increased in the ranks of the Mossad, but another unprecedented development has been the consideration of halachic matters in intelligence practice, including top-secret foreign missions. There is even a rabbi on staff whom staff consult on a regular basis asking what is permitted and prohibited, including concerning operational matters. They even render judgement on what foods an agent may eat in a foreign (and presumably treif) country; and what acts may be performed on Shabbat.

Barack Obama consults lawyers before murdering Osama bin Laden. Apparently, Tamir Pardo consults his rabbi. I’m not sure which is worse. But at least if Obama consulted a truly independent lawyer he might hear a contrary view. I don’t expect a rabbi to have any expertise either legally or professionally in this field. It’s only marginally better than consulting a fortune teller. Can you imagine Pres. Obama consulting Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson before a Navy SEAL mission like the bin Laden assassination? It beggars belief.

How can you call Israel a democracy when it’s as important to consult a rabbi about a top secret mission as it is to consult an elected minister?

 IDF posts pic of soldier from Ultra Orthodox ‘Netzach Yehuda’ Battalion, 2011. Photo by Abir Sultan

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