News Analysis: Slur stirs tensions between Orthodox and secular

JERUSALEM — The underlying tension between Israel's secular majority and religious minority erupted this week, threatening to undermine the basic fabric of society, including Israel's revered military.

What ignited the latest brouhaha was a March 5 speech by reserve Gen. Shlomo Gazit, longtime head of army intelligence. Gazit compared the knitted skullcap — which usually signifies a national-religious outlook — to the Nazi swastika.

Although Gazit ultimately apologized, his remarks sparked a national controversy. The incident underscored the intense polarization between the religious and secular camps in Israeli society today.

What motivated Gazit's comments is a mounting concern that more and more of the rising young officers corps are modern Orthodox. The "old guard," of which Gazit is a member, questions whether those Orthodox officers can be trusted, in all circumstances, to obey orders.

Gazit, a former president of Ben-Gurion University, was speaking at an international symposium on national identity at Tel Aviv University when he said the knitted yarmulke is a political-ideological badge and as such should not be worn by soldiers.

His reference to the swastika was intended to underline the point that it, too, was a political badge that German soldiers were encouraged to wear on their uniforms.

He recalled that in the past he had suggested to the military chaplaincy that it issue standard khaki or blue kippot.

The general, taken aback by the reaction to his remarks, offered a series of profuse apologies — including one to the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor.

Gazit called his own comments foolish and out of place. He spoke warmly of the contribution of kippah-wearing soldiers to the Israel Defense Force.

But he did not back away from his argument that a knitted kippah represented an ideological badge that had no place in the military.

Gazit's comments came as some Orthodox Knesset members sought to overturn the decision to award author Amos Oz this year's Israel Prize for Literature.

No one, on either side of the religious divide, pretended Gazit's words were a complete aberration.

Rather, there is widespread acknowledgment that they represent a profound sense of apprehension among many of the old-school Israeli elite. Their fear is that key sections of the state and society are in danger of being overrun by forces with values that run counter to the secular and socialist principles of Israel's founders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself often has said that his coalition of rightist, Orthodox, Sephardi and new immigrant groupings constitutes an "anti-elitist" swing against the Labor-aligned groups that for many decades ran the country.

In response to Gazit's comments, Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom, a member of the National Religious Party, demanded that the army strip Gazit of his rank, and the police open a criminal file against him on grounds of incitement to hatred and violence.

Others in the rightist and religious camps were more forgiving, preferring to make do with the general's sheepish apologies.

The increasing number of Orthodox officers that Gazit and others express concern over is especially true in fighting units.

That marks a stark contrast to the past, when the secular kibbutzim tended to supply a disproportionate number of front-line fighting officers and men. That role is now fulfilled by the religious education network, particularly the pre-army yeshivas and the hesder yeshivas, which educate their students to combine religious study and observance with military prowess and ambition.

The most prominent kippah-wearing officer of high rank is Brig. Gen. Ya'acov Amidror, military aide to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

There are two other brigadier generals who wear kippot, and many colonels and lieutenant colonels.

Indeed, some sources in the military believe Gazit made his remarks in order to head off the possible appointment of Amidror — who is a known to be a hardliner — to the sensitive post of head of military intelligence.

Regarding the debate over whether Orthodox officers can be trusted, attention has focused anew on the now-notorious rabbinical ruling issued by three national-religious rabbis in 1995 forbidding soldiers to carry out any orders to uproot settlements or evict settlers.

While not all Orthodox Israelis identify with the religious right, and while not all knitted-kippah wearers are necessarily ultranationalists, all Orthodox Israelis have been hurt and scarred by Gazit's comments — because they come from someone at the very heart of the establishment, and because they express so graphically the depth of suspicion and fear of Orthodox influence.

The backdrop to the episode is the widening polarization of Israeli society, which is found in several areas:

*All the Orthodox political parties are aligned with the Likud in the national camp. The rabbinic leadership of the various parties is steadily crystallizing a theology to support its hawkish political posture. (The flip side of that theology is that the left — that is, the dovish, liberal camp — is religiously tainted.)

*There is growing resentment among secular Israelis over what is seen as draft-dodging by fervently religious, or haredi, Jews and over rising poverty in that community. A series currently running in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that details the cost to Israeli society of the haredi community has aroused much bitterness among the haredim.

*Disagreements about opening shopping malls on Shabbat at various sites around the country fill the media each week.

While Shabbat-related secular-religious violence has broadly declined, the Labor Ministry, led by Minister Eliyahu Yishai of the fervently religious Shas Party, is determined to enforce closure laws and regulations on those businesses, even when they do not abut Orthodox areas.

For the modern Orthodox camp, Gazit's words and the reaction they drew in wide secular circles — revulsion at the style, not necessarily at the content — have come as a bitter shock.

Fervently religious Israelis, on the other hand, were heard this week citing Gazit to vindicate their separatism.

In one synagogue in Tel Aviv, a young haredi man bitterly remarked to a knitted-kippah wearer: "We always told you so — all of them hate all of us."