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.

But in mid-January, the chief of staff of the IDF decided formally to move the unit to the Manpower Directorate, essentially the human-resources division of the armed forces.

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.

Behind this bureaucratic infighting is a profound struggle for the meaning of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Stripped of subtlety, the debate can be framed as: Does the “Jewish” part mean national and cultural Jewish identity? Or does it mean Jewish religion, specifically of the nationalist Orthodox variety? The army brass still wants to emphasize national identity. The military rabbinate believes the answer lies in Orthodox Jewish faith.

Israel’s founders avoided addressing the issue head-on in the country’s Declaration of Independence. And they never wrote a constitution, partly because answering such existential identity questions was sure to be controversial.

But in practice, the Zionist conception of David Ben-Gurion and his associates was national-secular, not religious. Their declaration didn’t invoke “God” except once, as “the Rock of Israel” — a formula perhaps even more secular than Thomas Jefferson’s invocation of “Nature and Nature’s God.”

The land of Israel wasn’t described as God’s legacy to the Israelites. Instead the declaration described the land as “the birthplace of the Jewish people” where “their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped” and where they “created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The secular nationalist core of Zionism was also reflected in Israel’s early demographics. Conservative and Reform Judaism were almost unknown in Israel. Jews’ religious options were generally thought to consist of orthodoxy or secularism.

Ultraorthodox or Haredi Jews were a tiny minority, tolerated and granted draft exemptions in part because they were so few. Modern or nationalist Orthodoxy was also not terribly significant in numerical terms, although its symbolic importance was greater, because it represented a possible accommodation between Zionist nationalism and Jewish tradition.

Today, all that has changed. A 2009 poll suggested that just 42 percent of Israeli Jews called themselves secular. Haredi and other Orthodox totaled 20 percent then; given high Haredi birthrates, it’s likely those numbers have grown in the past seven years. (A quarter of the population described themselves as traditional but not fully observant, a position most popular among Jews whose origins lie in Arab lands.)

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