God in the IDF: Two Israeli Colonels Write Letters

God in the IDF: Two Israeli Colonels Write Letters
August 22, 2014

The Jewish Pluralist publishes today two letters by IDF Colonels with opposing views on the place of God and religion in the Israeli army. The letters were sent to us by David Langerman and Batya Sadot who served in the IDF. They are concerned that the IDF historic freedom from religious coercion has been eroded.

The letters of the two commanders capture a move to bring religion as policy into the IDF and the distress and fears that this move has caused; the letters are published here in their entirety. The first letter, by Colonel Ofer Winter commander of the Givati Brigade was addressed to all Givati soldiers, placing God at the center of the battle in Rafah; the second letter was a critical response by Colonel (Reserve) Ilan Eshel claiming that religion as policy has no place in the IDF.

Letter by Colonel Ofer Winter

Dear commanders and fighters,

It has been our great privilege to command and serve in the Givati Brigade at this time. History has chosen us to be the sharp edge of the bayonet of fighting the terrorist enemy “from Gaza” which curses, defames and abuses the God of Israel’s battles. We have practiced and prepared for this time and we take upon ourselves the mission with full humility, and being willing to endanger ourselves and give our lives to protect our families, our nation and our homeland.

We will act together forcefully and with resolve, with initiative, and with deceptive tricks and aim for contact with the enemy. We will do everything to live up to the mission and wipe out the enemy and remove the threat from the Nation of Israel. Nobody here returns without performing.

We will act and do everything to return our lads safely. Using all means at our disposal and with all required force.

I trust you, each and every one of you, to act in that spirit, in the spirit of Israeli fighters who are the pioneers leading the camp. The spirit of Givati. I turn my eyes to the sky and call with you “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” God, the Lord of Israel, make our path successful, as we are about to fight for Your People, Israel, against an enemy who defames your name. In the name of the IDF fighters and in particular, the fighters and commanders from the Brigade, make the phrase “For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” come true, and we shall answer: Amen.

Together and only together we will win.

Ofer Winter, Colonel
Commander of the Givati Brigade
Translated from the Hebrew by Dena Shunra


A Personal Letter to the Givati Commander Colonel Ofer Winter
August 13, 2014

Shalom Ofer,
I am writing in response to your letter to the Givati soldiers on the eve of their entering the Rafah area.

I have no doubt that when confronting Hamas the Givati Brigade under your command fought well, together with all other divisions, Golani, the Paratroopers, Nahal, Engeneering, and the Armored Division and that their soldiers have achieved outstanding results.

And yet, despite all of these, your words to the soldiers–to fight in the name of God and not in the name of the state of Israel that includes all of its citizens (religious and secular)—offended me deeply, as you have given yourself the right to turn the IDF into a religion and to incorporate the army and its soldiers into your extreme religious views.

My name is Ilan Eshel and I am a Colonel (Reserve). I am 78 and I fought in five wars in the name of the state, of Zionism, of my comrades, and in the name of our just ways. I fought in retaliation battles, I fought in the Sinai war with the Golani Brigade where we captured the Egyptian army posts in Rafah and where I lost four of my friends. One of them was religious, but together we fought for the sake of the state and not in the name of God.

In the Six Day War I fought in the West Bank, in the capturing of Jenin. Many of the soldiers of my platoon were seriously wounded. In the War of Attrition I volunteered to serve in the Suez Canal and was under heavy Egyptian artillery. There too, it was not God who helped us, but our fortified posts, our bullet proof vests, and luck.

I would like to broaden the picture a bit to describe to you a battle in the Yom Kippur War, that you possibly don’t know because it did not receive much publicity.

After the collapse of our first lines of defense on the Golan Heights there was a second line of defense—between Farah and Tel Fares in which many units, including unit 134, fought together with unit 179 on a stretch of 10 kilometers held by the Syrian army.  Despite the fact that the ratio was 1:10 in favor of the Syrians our forces held the line for two days and nights—until the IDF started a counter-attack with only 15 tanks. The commanders on the ground were from kibbutzim, farming communities, urban cities, secular and religious. Many were killed, and those who survived were wounded. Soldiers and commanders fought to defend the state, their homes (some homes were within a short distance from the Syrians) and they fought for democracy and friendships, everyone in their own beliefs, not necessarily in the name of any God.

In that war I fought as a commander of the Reconnaissance Battalion of the Armored Division and my tank was hit. Everyone of the tank crew was killed. I was the only survivor. I was very seriously wounded. I was rescued by a commander from Kibbutz Yagur (a certified secular) who was killed the next day. God did not help them. I was just lucky.

In the first Lebanon War I was a battalion commander. There too, my tank was hit. The gunner was killed. I was wounded again and was rescued again by soldiers and not by any God.

I have great respect for your faith or for any other believer, but the Golani Brigade Commander is a Druze, and all other brigades, which did not profess God’s name as they entered the battlefield, fought just as valiantly as your unit.

In your letter you separate yourself from the unity of the IDF, you stand apart from those who differ from you—who are not religious, or who belong to other religions, you push them out of the IDF “togetherness” that quality that makes us a good army, known by all as the army of the people.

Your words were hurtful to me and to many secular soldiers, living and dead—who hold different views from yours, who have contributed to the security of Israel no less than you and the soldiers of the religious Zionists who are certainly good and professional soldiers.
I am asking you to retract your words that have been hurtful to so many.

The IDF is still the Israel Defense Force and not the army of Hashem.

Ilan Eshel

Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett