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IDF replaces "People of Israel" with "God" in memorial prayer

The shift in terminology in the prayer reflects more than just a victory in the tug-of-war between secular and religious factions within the IDF, but rather deeper changes underway in society as a whole.

Haaretz reports this morning that Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has issued an order altering the phrasing of the official military memorial prayer. If for decades, the prayer began: “Let the people of Israel remember its sons and daughters,” then from now on it will open with “Let God remember His songs and daughters.” This brings to an end a tug-of-war over the prayer that has gone on since the foundation of the state, and reflects some of the deeper changes underway in the military and society in general.

While the memorial prayer of Yizkor is almost a millennium old, the version rasing recited in military ceremonies is much younger and is tightly bound to the state’s secular-nationalist character. Written by Zionist Labor leader Berl Katznelson, the prayer – a proclamation, really, since it’s addressed to no God – entreats the people of Israel to remember their sons and daughters, fighters in the military, the underground organizations, the intelligence community, the police and so on and so forth. The absence of God is no coincidence; one of the Zionist movement’s most revolutionary elements in the context of Jewish history was its utter rejection of reliance on divine deliverance. The Jews, Zionism held, will build their own homeland with their own blood and sweat (others’ blood and sweat went unmentioned, then as now). God, who was prayed onto for two millennia to no avail, was not invited.

As religion and power got closer with the foundation of the state, Katznelson’s starkly secular prayer was changed officially by Israel’s first chief military rabbi, Shlomo Goren (he who begged the IDF to blow up the Dome of the Rock and responded to the Oslo Accords by calling for the assassination of Arafat), who altered the first phrase to “Let God remember”. Nevertheless, the readers at ceremonies – and especially at the main national Memorial Day ceremony on Mount Herzl – continued using Katznelson’s version. Until now.

While Haaretz reports that Gantz’s decision to reaffirm Goren’s version and have it read at the national ceremony from now on came in response to a call from a journalist to revert to the Katznelson version officially, there’s more to the move than formality. In the past years, studies and surveys have shown only 42 percent of Israeli Jews still identify themselves are entirely secular; the number of religious Jews in the officer corps of the infantry alone has grown from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 33.5 percent in 2007. Gantz wasn’t resisting the journalist’s request – he was bowing to the demands of the military rabbinate, which has grown considerably more pro-active in recent years.

But it runs deeper than a tussle between “secular” and “religious” factions. Zionist nationalism is suffused with religion and religious terminology  to the core. As pointed out repeatedly and in various forms by Jewish and Israeli thinkers over the past century (Gershom Sholem, Katznelson himself and more recently Yehouda Shenhav come to mind), you can’t claim to be completely secular while  building a nation based on religious scriptures. Religiosity will eventually bubble up and reclaim its rightful place at the helm – and this is what is happening today.

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    1. Leonid Levin

      Religion (and for that matter, any dogmatic ideology) that merges and colludes with secular powers has always been a recipe for attrocious crimes against minorities and dissent, and ultimately for the decline of the religion and the secular powers themselves. And yet the same religion, when it cares for and stands up for the powerless, the humble and the oppressed, has been a great inspiration to the whole of humanity.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Wouldn’t “the Children of God” be inclusive of the people the IDF have had to kill in its history?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Issa Mualem

      For a supposed anti-nationalist, you are very fast to throw yourself in bed with ultra-nationalist, racialist, “Remember the NATION OF ISRAEL”, so that heavens forbid there won’t be any mention of God.

      Amazing. You’d rather the prayer insults the feelings of Muslim Arabs, Druze, Christian Arabs and Christian non-Jewish Russians in the IDF who are not “Nation of Israel” (but all believe in God), than have the word God mentioned (in a prayer, mind you. God in a Prayer? Craziness!)

      You are such a fraud, Dimi. This drivel objectively confirms you don’t care for Palestinian rights – you simply hate Jews and Judaism and use Palestinians as a conveniently placed bashing stick.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      Issa makes an interesting point. What the Arabs call “the Nakba”, i.e. Israel 1948 War of Independence had a national leadership and IDF officer corps that had almost no religous people at all present. The leadership of the time was militantly secular and many were Marxist Socialists who viewed the religious people as not being sufficiently nationalist and willing to fight. So we see that it is not the religious Jews who were the militants.
      This just confirms what I have said before….the Israeli Left, for all its claims to being “multicultural” actually has values which are inimical to Islam and they have an hidden “missionary” drive, although it is subconcious, to get the Arabs/Muslims to give up their own values and adopt western, secular, materialist, consumerist values. Ultimately (although it will take considerable time), it is the “right-wing Orthodox/religious” people in Israel who will reach a modus-vivendi with the Arab/Muslim world since traditional Orthodox Judaism is NOT a missionary religion and respects the values of other religious groups, thus being a lesser threat to them than Israel’s secular Left.

      Reply to Comment

      Well, Ben, it’s hard to imagine the religious Jewish right in Israel making peace with the Muslim right in the near future – but I do fear you are right in that the militantly atheist left is hell-bent on forcing their progressive neo-Marxist views on both sides.
      Pragmatism is what’s needed in order to bring about peace and understanding, and I can tell you that while militant God hating in EU and US is considered a mild distraction, in the Middle East it can be catastrophic. It’s truly scary to discover that grossly intolerant people like Dimi are the ones who lead civil rights movements.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      At this very moment, there is dialogue between “right-wing Orthodox settlers” and Palestnian Muslims. There were actually good relations between the settlers and many Palestinians from shortly after the Six-Day War, but Intifada I in 1988 put an end to it. The revulsion of many Palestinians with the FATAH-Palestinian Authority has brought about a renewal of the contacts. They are tentative, but there is no question they will increase. The most prominent of the Jewish dialoguers is Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa. Unfortunately, he is ill now, but others are entering the area also. There is also an increased emphasis on studying Arabic among these Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Imshin

      Issa, I think the majority of traditional Jews in Israel, not secular but not strictly religious, while encompassing a very wide range of people, are on the whole more pragmatic than both the atheist far left and the so called ‘national religious’ far right, and are definitely open to compromise.

      Reply to Comment