Who gets to define the “Jewish” part of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state? Maybe the Knesset or Israel’s supreme court? It turns out there’s another major player: the Israel Defense Forces. The military recently announced a change in the Jewish Identity Unit, which teaches draftees a religious version of what Jewishness entails. The change is intended as a blow against nationalist Orthodoxy in the cultural struggle over whether Israel is a secular or a religious state.
On the surface, the IDF policy shift resulted from a fight within the military bureaucracy. The Jewish Identity Unit, formed in 2001, used to be under the control of the military rabbinate, which is commanded by a brigadier general who’s a nationalist Orthodox rabbi.
This move was a compromise. Initially, the Manpower Directorate had proposed merging the Jewish Identity Unit into its Education Corps, which educates (or if you prefer, indoctrinates) soldiers in secular national values. This proposal led to push back from national religious rabbis, resulting in the middle ground of keeping the Jewish Identity Unit in existence but moving it away from the military rabbinate.