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Friday, 27 April 2018

Reclaiming Judaism from mystical Zionist nationalism

Rabbi Michael Davis

My high school in Jerusalem was a few minutes walk from the Mt. Herzl military cemetery. Mt. Herzl is Israel's National Cemetery. On Israel's Memorial Day (which was celebrated in Israel last Wednesday) we attended state ceremonies there. The grounds and graves are remarkably well tended. Graceful paths curve round the hillside under a canopy of lofty trees. Each identical grave is meticulously constructed with a low wall surrounding a green bed of garden cover. Each grave resembles a bed with a pillow of stone as the tombstone. The serene beauty presents these tragic deaths as orderly and dignified.

However, this week I looked again at images of the Mt Herzl cemetery and found them disturbing. Perhaps it is my becoming a parent that opened my eyes to see the child in each soldier. Thinking of these dead boys as sleeping serenely in their eternal beds misses the point and is frankly, creepy.

My high school's close proximity to Mt Herzl was not just geographical but ideological. We were part of the Bnei Akiva movement a partner in the settler movement. This ideology is promoted both in high schools and in post high school yeshivas and mechinas. These institutions are pre-military academies. They prepare Orthodox young men to be religiously devout and ideologically sound before beginning their three year military service. They are funded by the State of Israel.

The Bnei David Mechina on the West Bank settlement of Eli made headlines recently when its faculty Rabbi Ophir Walls endorsed genocide against the Palestinians. (Before that, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein of Bnei David was pilloried in Israel for his outspoken prejudice against LGBTQ.)

The founder and dean of the Mechina is Rabbi Eli Sadan who has given unqualified support to his staff. Like me, Rabbi Sadan studied at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, another military seminary. Bnei David, in particular, prides itself on the high percentage of its graduates who excel in competitive, high prestige roles such as air force pilots. The Mechinah prides itself on the high percentage of graduates who get placed in elite positions in the armed forces, including air force pilots, military commanders and other combat troops. Bnei David sees itself as a pioneering force, that assumed the mantle of noblesse oblige previously held in Israeli society by the kibbutz movement, but in this case making it possible to be Orthodox and an elite soldier. This is part of a larger strategy to gradually move into key leadership positions throughout Israeli society and government.

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