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.