How do you explain the religious complexities of a foreign culture not only to those who have a pretty deep understanding already, but to your most ignorant reader? And do various commonly used terms, like "religious right" and "religious left" mean the same thing "over there" (in this case, Israel) as they do over here? Not that we neccessarily even agree on what they mean over here.
These are just a couple of the questions that occured to me as I read Ethan Bronner's article on conflict within the Israeli army in the wake of the recently ended fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza.
The lede takes us into what seems to be familiar territory: conflict between religious and secularist elements in Israeli culture.
The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the recent Gaza fighting highlights a debate here about the rules of war. But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.
Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
"Holy warriors?" Yikes. In the United States, that would be a very serious allegation. Does it have the same jihadist associations in Israel? Bronner also uses the term "religious nationalist" without really defining what it is. I assume that it means someone who believes that Jews have a divinely ordained right to the land of Israel (including the occupied territories). If they are battling secular liberals for control of the army and of society, then how come recent elections have been so inconclusive? The author also doesn't quote any of these "religious nationalists" so we only hear about them through the eyes of their opponents. That leads to a serious lack of balance.
In the middle of the article, Bronner introduces a philosophy professor, Moshe Halbertal-and raises some more questions for American readers.
"The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies" noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically liberal. "The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli society through the army."
For Mr. Halbertal, like for the vast majority of Israelis, the army is an especially sensitive institution because it has always functioned as a social cauldron, throwing together people from all walks of life and scores of ethnic and national backgrounds, and helping form them into a cohesive society with social networks that carry on throughout their lives.
Are the religious "right-wing" the same people as the "religious nationalists?" The term "right-wing" can be used to describe, in a vaguely derogatory fashion, a whol array of positions. Then, in the midst of a story which at first blush seems to be about secularists and conservative religious Jews (small "c"), he brings in another group--religious but liberal Jews.
How many of them are there? What do they believe? How influential are they?
Bronner concludes his article by returning to Halbertal, who believes that "the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves." Now that is very interesting. But why do we hear about this divide only at the end of the article?
I'm guessing that a few of our commenters, already immersed in Israeli religion and politics, will "get" this story in a way that an American average reader would not. But though the debate apparently seething in Israeli political and religious circles is fascinating, I'm still not clear as to who the major players are-and I certainly don't know who has the better chance of winning! But then, the Israelis probably don't, either.
Picture of Rafah Crossing in Gaza is from Wikimedia Commons