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The Problem With Nahal Haredi

It's sort of like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; it recruits Americans for volunteer military service abroad. The difference? You don't have to be a dupe of Stalinism, but you do have to be male, haredi, … Read More

By / May 1, 2007

It's sort of like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; it recruits Americans for volunteer military service abroad. The difference? You don't have to be a dupe of Stalinism, but you do have to be male, haredi, and evidently well-spoken (and forget about republican notions of fraternity):

Nahal Haredi faced considerable skepticism from haredim and army generals when it was established in 1999. Few recruits applied, and many who did were not haredi; some had police records. At the same time, many haredi rabbis saw the concept as a plot to keep young men from studying in yeshiva. Regular army officers said the unit's soldiers had a tendency toward insubordination and excess violence toward Palestinians. In the last few years, though, standards have been tightened and the problems largely have been overcome. What kind of men is Nahal Haredi looking for? According to its Web site, www.nahalharedi.org, the basic requirements are "Shabbat observance, wearing a kippah and a refined speech." Theoretically, any man — no women, of course — who meets these basic criteria can join the battalion, but in practice some 70 percent come from fervently Orthodox homes in Bnei Brak and other haredi enclaves.

I don't like the idea of ultra-Orthodox soldiers from other countries being recruited to bear arms even in a remote Jordan Valley outpost that, by the IDF's own definition, is tantamount to a sinecure. For one thing, this is a dogmatically self-isolating battalion in a "people's" army that still operates on egalitarian-socialist principle. (Can you imagine haredi personnel being deployed to, say, rescue a captured female private from the West Bank?) For another, Nahal Haredi soldiers are licensed to divide their time between service and Torah study in a way that can't be beneficial to either, as plenty of haredi rabbis have pointed out.

When Nahal Haredi was established in 1999, recruiters were so desperate that they admitted kids with police records and Zionist tendencies alarming to most native-born Israelis. Unsurprisingly, the battalion had a higher index of aggravated assaults on Palestinians. And American telecom honcho Howard Jonas's well-publicized promise to reward all veterans of Nahal Haredi with lucrative private sector jobs strikes me as exactly the sort of mercenary messianism that does the Jewish state's international reputation, or the playing down of accusations of the dire concatenation between American and Israeli foreign policies, absolutely no good.

Whatever you may think of the late Israel Shahak, one of his least polemical long-standing complaints against the IDF was that it wasn't disciplined enough because of its tolerance of ancient religious chauvinisms that repulsed conventional standards for human rights. What happens when Gush Emunim is allowed to dictate behavior in the barracks? Insubordination by any other name and on which conservative defenders of a state's military establishment would typically look askance.

Stated in a slightly different way, how do you feel about the influx of evangelicals describing themselves as "soldiers of God" in the U.S. Armed Forces? Should they signal an allegiance to a covenant higher than the Constitution in the execution of their duty, would you rest easier at night?

Apparently, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (as Nahal Haredi is also known) is in fitter form these days. Nevertheless, isn't the trouble with a monolithic military unit — one comprised of a sectarian religious minority at that — that its conduct will become increasingly less transparent and resistant to external review? The pressures of comraderie are strong, but they are not necessarily checks on individual conscience or organizational self-criticism, especially in a well integrated — indeed, sexually integrated — army. Brotherhood on the battlefield shall suffer if the bond is a shared metaphysics and not a shared country.

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