In the small town of Catskill in upstate New York, a tiny museum sits in a restored 19th century warehouse on Historic Catskill Point, jutting into the Hudson River and overlooking the Rip Van Wrinkle Bridge. Called the Freightmasters Building, this vintage brick structure converted into a maritime museum houses, among other artifacts, several clippings from local newspapers, some dating back a hundred years.
On the front page of the July 14, 1917 Catskill Daily is an article titled “Pray for Soldiers Bound for War.” The article reads:
Tomorrow the New York National Guard will be mobilized according to President Wilson’s proclamation and as it is recognized that the men will soon leave for training camps in the south, Governor Whitman deemed it appropriate and fitting that Sunday be set aside as a day of prayer for the men who are going to war.
The proclamation calls on all people of whatever creed to repair to their houses of worship and offer up prayer to Almighty God on behalf of our gallant young manhood now about to go forth to battle in the most righteous cause in the armies of our beloved nation, discharging thus their duty as worthy descendants of our ancestors who, while gaining for us our liberty, acknowledged in their Declaration of Independence their firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.
Beautiful words, but astounding to a reader a century later. Not because the content is an archaic affront to our sensibilities, like an early advertisement for a Negro slave might be, but because it appears to be an obvious breach of today’s accepted injunctions relating to separation of church and state.
It is hard to believe that only one hundred years ago religion played such a central and accepted role in the personal and governmental lives of American citizens that its invocation was standard. It is difficult enough nowadays to justify any military incursion as a “most righteous cause,” let alone acknowledge a “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” In today’s democracies such language would only invite condemnation.
The democracy of the Jewish state seems to be no exception. The recent disbanding of the government and the ensuing pre-election chaos is due in large part to squabbling over the nature of the “Jewishness” of the Jewish state. The proposed law to designate Israel as the “Nation State of the Jewish People,” which led to the dissolution of the government coalition, should have been as obvious an expression of the Jewish identity of the state of Israel as Governor Whitman’s call to worship in 1917.
While the proposed law would not have threatened the civil rights and democracy of any non-Jew living in Israel, as many of its critics claimed, it would have safeguarded the Jewish character of the state as its founders had intended. And in a climate of anti-Israel sentiment, when Israel’s enemies are actively engaged in attempts to delegitimize that Jewish character, what’s wrong with that?
Equally disturbing was the Knesset meeting several weeks ago on the topic of “religionization” of soldiers in the IDF. MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) called the meeting to address concerns that religious factors are changing the IDF’s character, with two incidents during Operation Protective Edge this past summer serving as prime examples. One was Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter’s letter of encouragement to his soldiers with religious overtones and biblical references; the other was the transporting of Golani Brigade soldiers from the South to the Western Wall, where they recited the blessing for having survived a life-endangering situation.
Such events in a different time and place would have made Governor Whitman proud. And the censure of religious conviction in a country whose roots lie in biblical inheritance, and whose ancestral battles were fought with divine protection, is especially offensive and even ominous because it devalues the significant contributions of the increasingly religious membership of the IDF’s combat units and leadership.
Amos Harel, military correspondent and defense analyst for Haaretz, has noted that “Religious Zionists are about 12-15 percent of the population, about 20-25 percent of soldiers in combat units, but maybe 30-40 percent of the junior offices in combat units. From that we see that their motivation is high. They feel they have to defend their country.”
While no one advocates religious coercion of any type in the military or elsewhere, such recognized motivation on the part of religious soldiers should be enough to calm any fears among secular Israelis concerning the encroachment of religion in the military. Soldiers who strongly believe in their cause and have a corresponding upbringing to bolster those beliefs make better soldiers. And for a country besieged by enemies on all fronts, that makes for better protection.
Ironically, while the Knesset convened to hear concerns over religion in the military, a meeting on an altogether different theme was being held in the New York metropolitan area. Panim el Panim, an organization dedicated to bringing Jewish identity and religion to Israeli soldiers and students, brought IDF soldiers to New York schools, organizations, and shuls to talk about their experiences in the recent Gaza conflict and how those experiences impacted their Jewish identity.
I spoke with Maor Rabi, one of the IDF fighters who served as a captain and officer in the armored corps. Though he considers himself masorati (traditional) rather than Orthodox, he is a staunch believer in Judaism and Zionism and even encouraged his soldiers to learn the daf yomi and Gemara when he served as an officer.
For Rabi, there is no doubt that a strong identification with Judaism is a prime motivator for those serving in the IDF. “The majority of the officers and soldiers in special units are religious and they are 100 percent more motivated,” he told me. “There’s no debate about this. Their motivation is more solid and they’re more focused. I can see it in the reserves and other places, and it’s a blessed trend.”
His candid observation is just further corroboration of the common sense notion that believing in a cause, especially a religious one, empowers the person defending it. Taken to one extreme it explains the fanaticism of Muslim fighters and to the other extreme the dangerously passive attitude of too many Western countries.
The rancorous pre-election party maneuverings in Israel have superseded the bickering over the Jewish State Law, religion in the army, and other issues that inexplicably draw condemnation rather than confirmation. What should not be argued about is the primacy of defending the Jewish homeland as the biblical inheritance that God gave the Jewish people.
It is this belief that guided Jewish victories in ancient and contemporary struggles and that hopefully will do so in the future. It is this belief that will ensure Jewish viability so that a spirited call to arms today will not become an obscure headline in a yellowed newspaper a hundred years from now.