This article examines the links between alternative spirituality and Israeli militarism in the context of the confrontations between new religious and spiritual movements and Israeli society and state, and the efforts of such movements to gain legitimation through participation in republican citizenship practices and adaptations of Israeli cultural values. The article discusses the representation of alternative religious and spiritual movements as a danger to the Israeli Army by anticult movements, and the response of new religious movements to such accusations. Through the study of two case studies, Emin and Anthroposophy, the article examines the adjustments of religious and spiritual doctrines and practices of new religious movements to Israeli military ethos, the role of militarism in the endeavors of such movements to legitimize themselves through participation in Israeli republican citizenship practices, and the appropriations and interpretations of the Israeli military ethos by Israeli alternative spiritual movements.

In April 2003, the Israeli newspaper, Ma`ariv, published an article concerning the endeavor of members of the Israeli Emin Society, a new religious movement that was founded in England in the 1970s, to open a preparatory premilitary academy in their communal settlement, Ma`aleh Zvia, in the upper Galilee. The article, written by the journalist and political analyst Ben Caspit, pointed out that many of the members of the Emin were veterans of commando units, especially of Israel’s elite commando unit, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Unit 269, known in Hebrew as Sayeret Matkal:

Ma`aleh Zvia, a settlement of the Emin cult, proposed to establish a preparatory pre-military program, as many of its members are veterans of Sayeret Matkal and other elite units. The ministry of defense approved. The police presented a report concerning the mysterious cult. Other intelligence agents noted its connections with the security establishment but refused to take a stand. The head of the Israeli security agency, Avi Dicther, himself a veteran of Sayeret Matkal, did not oppose it. Ben Caspit traveled to the Galilee, to the stronghold of the cult whose members are called to empty their egos, conduct themselves in a strict hierarchical structure, regard themselves as superior to others, and blindly obey their leader.1

The Emin Society (also known as the Eminent Way and the Template Network), whose teaching and practices are quite eclectic and based on various esoteric and occult sources, was founded in 1971 by Raymond Armin, also known as Leo.2 The Emin became very successful in Israel, one of the movement’s largest centers in the world.3 The aspiration of an esoteric new religious movement to establish a premilitary academy may seem odd, but in Israel it can be related to the significant role of the military in society and to the quest of new religious movements for legitimacy. Indeed, many other new religious and spiritual movements in Israel express a positive attitude to the army and emphasize that there are veterans of elite military units among their ranks. Thus, a few years ago, Adam/Olam, the Israeli Anthroposophical magazine, published interviews with veterans of Commando Unit 269 who are members of the Israeli Anthroposophical Kibbutz Harduf. Anthroposophy became popular in Israel in the late 1970s, and today it is the most successful alternative spiritual movement in Israel, the Israeli Anthroposophists having established homes for children and people with special needs, a settlement, Kibbutz Harduf, in the upper Galilee, and many Waldorf schools and kindergartens. The article about the Anthroposophists veterans of Unit 269 opens with these questions:

Why are there so many Anthroposophists who are veterans of Sayeret Matkal? Four former commando members speak about the connection between the military way and the spiritual way, about Karma, killing and death. Why is the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) commando structured like an ancient Chivalry order, and what is the fundamental problem with its ethos?4

In this article, we examine the links between alternative spirituality and Israeli militarism in the context of the confrontations between new religious and spiritual movements and Israeli society and state, and the efforts of such movements to gain legitimation through participation in republican citizenship practices and adaptations of Israeli cultural values. We discuss the representation of alternative religious and spiritual movements as a danger to Israeli Army by anticult movements and the response of new religious movements to such accusations. Through the study of two case studies, the Emin and Anthroposophy, we examine the adjustments of religious and spiritual doctrines and practices of new religious movements to Israeli military ethos, the role of militarism in the endeavors of such movements to legitimize themselves, and the appropriations and interpretations of the Israeli military ethos by Israeli alternative spiritual movements.

The term new religious movements refers to a large variety of new and alternative religious and spiritual movements, which are sometimes also referred to as alternative religious movements, minority religions, or cults. These movements have been active in western Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, especially since the 1950s. Many of these groups deny that they are religious, and prefer to describe themselves as spiritual or therapeutic. Although some of these groups originated from earlier Christian denominations and Western esoteric and occults movements, many others originated in non-Western, especially Asian cultures. Many new religious movements today integrate within their teachings and activities modern therapy techniques and New Age practices, operating like global economic enterprises.

Many times, new religious and spiritual movements were branded cults, and confronted with negative reactions from anticult movements, the media, and state authorities, who perceived them as a threat to society and attempted to delegitimize them. New religious movements confronted such allegations by using legitimating strategies that emphasize their contribution to society and to personal well-being.5 Notwithstanding the opposition they encountered, some new religious and spiritual movements gained much success and became global movements.6 The globalization of the movements created new adaptations and reformulations of these teaching in different localities, often reflecting the challenges and limitations they encounter.

Although some alternative religious and spiritual movements arrived in Israel earlier, new religious movements became active and visible in Israeli society especially since the late 1970s.7 New religious movements in Israel include groups who gained international success, such as Anthroposophy, Transcendental Meditation, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Church of Scientology, as well as smaller groups such as the Emin Society. Apart from the “imported,” non-Jewish groups, a few new local, mostly Jewish neo-Kabbalistic movements developed in Israel, and some of them, such as the Kabbalah Center (which started its activities in the 1970s in Israel and the United States) and Bnei-Baruch (which was established in Israel in the early 1990s), became international movements.8 Some of the traditional Hasidic movements, such as Chabad (Lubavitcher) and the various Breslov Hasidic groups, underwent radical changes and reformulations of their theological doctrines, religious practices, and social compositions that also justify characterizing them as new religious movements.

Israel does not provide full religious freedoms customary to most Western democracies, as Jewish Orthodoxy holds a prominent formal and informal status in Israel and authority over religious and nonreligious Jews alike. Three important changes, however, provided new grounds for secularization and opened up the potential for religious pluralism. First, social-economic changes associated with globalization underscored the evolution of a global consumer culture, at times indifferent to religious constraints. Second, mass immigration from the former Soviet Union brought many secular Jews and a large number of non-Jews to Israel. Third, ideational changes occurred in the form of new and renewed demand for recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish alternatives and religious pluralism.9 While these changes created opportunities for different spiritual and religious movements, Israel’s pluralism remained limited and often constrained.

In Israel, as in other countries, the rise of new religious and spiritual movements aroused a wave of public panic and, concomitantly, a strong anticult movement, which included the ultraorthodox anti-missionary and anticult organization Yad L`Achim, the secular Concerned Parents against Cults organization, and the Israeli Center for Cult Victims.10 The Israeli authorities also reacted to the activities of new religious movements. Between 1982 and 2011, four reports that focused on new religious movements and the “cult phenomenon” were issued. These four reports include (1) an 1982 Israeli police report; (2) a report of the inter-ministerial committee for the investigation of “mystical eastern cults in Israel,” headed by Miriam Glazer-Ta`asa, the deputy minister of culture and education, published in 1987; (3) the 1995 report of the inter-ministerial committee regarding the activities of cults headed by Alon Liel, the general director of the Economics Ministry; and (4) the more recent report of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services committee for the investigation of the phenomenon of cults in Israel, issued in 2011. In recent years, following the recommendations of the 2011 committee, Parliament members are engaged in drafting a bill for treatment of harmful cults.11

The monopoly of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, the strong affinity of Jewish religion to national identity and the state, and, consequently, the suspicion or even hostility toward non-Jewish religious alternatives have placed severe limitations on new religious movements. Because of the negative attitude to cults in Israeli society and the state’s limitations on their operations, religious and spiritual movements resorted to different strategies of confrontation, adaptation, and legitimization. These include legal and political initiatives to fend off limitations, changes in doctrines and practices in order to appear less threatening and more appealing to Jewish Israelis, and initiatives that contribute to Israeli republican citizenship.

The question of the relation between new religious and spiritual movements and the military plays an important role both in anticult campaigns in Israel and in the endeavors of Israeli new religious movements to confront opposition, to gain legitimization, and to adapt to Israeli society.12 Before we turn to analyze the complex relations between new religious and spiritual movements and the Israeli military ethos, we briefly examine the social and cultural roles of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and obligatory military service in Israeli society.

Militarism, “the tendency to view organized violence and wars as legitimate means of solving social problems,”13 has consequences not only for political decision-making processes in Israel but also for a general state of mind. The protracted external conflict yields a feeling of a constant and imminent security threat, an investment of social and material resources for military preparedness, and a state of emergency implemented in legislation, administration, and social life. The Israeli state since inception placed high demands on its (Jewish) citizens to serve the collective, and evaluated citizenship according to the level of contribution. This idea of a republican citizenship was developed in pre-statehood, creating classifications that determine hierarchies within the Jewish majority.14

Thus, while the ethno-national logic of Israeli citizenship has served to separate Jews from non-Jews, the republican logic has added another level of hierarchy determined by contribution to the state.15 This “republican equation” not only exchanged military sacrifice for social dominance, but also provided the institutions in charge of security with status and authority.16

Consequently, the IDF is the Israeli institution that gains the highest degree of confidence by Israelis. Military service became a decisive standard by which rights are awarded to individuals, and by which group hierarchies and exclusions are established and legitimated. Contribution to the collective security, through military service, continuously expanded the meaning of security, which, as the late Israeli Sociologist Baruch Kimmerling argued, “is far more wide sweeping than the term military, at the same time, the ever-expansive boundaries of ‘security’ are loosely defined, and almost any sphere or subject can be connected expediently to ‘security.’”17 Militarism, therefore, serves as an organizing principle of society, based not only on the formal role of the military and its jurisdiction but also on a “state of mind” as security discourse permeates society, defines different social questions in terms of security and providing security experts with authority.

Israel has compulsory military service, for males and females, with exemptions for different groups and on an individual basis, such as conscientious objection or psychiatric grounds. Overall, civil-military relations have changed since the 1990s, with the declining legitimacy of sacrifice, mainly among the secular middle class.18 Military service, however, remains significant, especially for peripheral groups seeking status and recognition and, consequently, serves a resource for legitimization.19 Military service is an important entry point for groups seeking upward mobility and integration. Service in elite units such as the commando units, the air force, and the intelligence, entails high symbolic and social power. Military service, therefore, provides evidence for good citizenship, and marginalized or suspected groups may perceive military service as a way to legitimize themselves and claim their place within society.

The military, like other institutions in Israel, treated new religious movements with suspicion. But members of new religious movements have served in the military and even in prestigious units, which they used later to demonstrate loyalty and contribution. While the exact numbers of members of such movements who have served in these units is unknown, it appears that there is a high number of veterans of elite military units among the Emin, Anthroposophy, and possibly other Israeli new religious movements. This, as well as other factors, indicates that members of Israeli new religious and spiritual movements, especially in their formative years in the late 1970s and 1980s, came mostly from the secular Ashkenazi elites of Israel society, which were also highly represented in elite IDF units. However, in the framework of this study, our interest is not to assess the participation of members of new religious movements in the IDF and their possible impact on the military, but rather, to investigate the ways in which Israeli new religious movements use the prestigious army service of their members to gain legitimacy within Israeli society.

Since the early 1980s, the question of members of new religious movements serving in the military has been part of a wider debate over the potential threat posed by cults. Government commissions for the investigation of cults (the Glazer-Ta`asa committee from 1982–1987 and the Liel committee from 1994–1995) included IDF representatives. New religious movements were perceived by government agents and Israeli public opinion as posing different (and somewhat contradictory) threats to the IDF and to the Israeli military ethos.

On the one hand, members of new religious movements were accused of evading army service. Miriam Glazer-Ta`asa, the deputy minister of culture and education and the chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee for the investigation of cults in Israel, accused new religious movements of encouraging their members to distance themselves from the core values of Israeli society, including military service. In her 1983 report to the Knesset (the Israel Parliament), she asserted: “Many cults encourage their members to avoid military service, to leave the country, and alienate themselves from everything which was close and dear to them.”20 The same year, the journalist Israel Landers claimed in a series of reports about new religious movements in Israel entitled “Take my Soul,” that some cult members are exempt from army service on grounds of conscience and religious objection, or because of mental disturbance.21 Several of the members of the Glazer-Ta’asa Committee asserted that soldiers who were members of cults suffered from psychopathological problems that prevent them from performing their army duties.22

On the other hand, new religious movements were accused of infiltrating the army, in order to capture the souls of the young soldiers. Thus, for instance, a veteran of Commando Unit 269 claimed that the IDF stopped calling the reserve service members of the unit who joined the Emin. “They came to the reserve service, and we wasted all our energy in arguments with them,” he said. “At a certain point I felt they were a threat to my trainees, and it became superfluous. They are stubborn, strange people. Friends that grew together with us in the army service, and suddenly turned into something different.…it is strange, even frightening.”23 Following the publication of the final report of the Glazer-Ta’asa Committee, psychiatrist Dr. Mordechai Kaufman, the head of the Kibbutz movement unit for child and family therapy, said that it is important to “immunize” senior high school students against the subversive activities of cults, “which lurk for them in every corner in the army.”24

In November 1994, the Knesset’s State Control Committee met to discuss “the activities of mystical and other cults in Israel.” Members of the committee accused the army of not acting strongly enough against cults. They claimed that cults establish “hornets’ nests” in the army, that leaders of cults are invited to give lectures in army bases, and that the Church of Scientology established its main branch in the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.25 The committee’s press release makes this claim:

The committee was informed that the cults succeeded in getting a foothold also within IDF bases, and that they are recruiting followers from amongst the soldiers. Their recruiting and persuasion methods include hypnotic effects, generating suggestive conditions and altering the state of consciousness in a way that infiltrates the blockades of rational judgment of those who choose to participate in events organized by the cults. The committee was also informed that high-ranking officers and pilots are included amongst members of the cults.26

It is interesting to note that the “cults” are described here, and elsewhere, in military terms—an alien military force that recruits the youth to its ranks, infiltrates army bases, and endangers the IDF.

While new religious movements were portrayed as a danger to the army, military service was perceived as a cure, or an antidote, to “cults.” The 1981 plan of action of the Concerned Parents against Cults organization included a request from the army to draft members of cults, and to prevent them from evading compulsory and reserve army service (Concerned Parents against Cults Plan of Action 1981).27 In 1983, Nathanel Blasberg, the head of the Concerned Parents organizations, made this statement in an interview to the daily newspaper Davar:

Some members of Hare Krishna were released from the military, although their parents pleaded that they be allowed to serve. The parents of these young people do not want the army to release them, because they hope that the military framework will disconnect their children from the cults. Stricter rules concerning the exemption of cult members from military service may possibly help saving souls and will not be too much of a burden to the Army.28

In 1995, the government of Israel accepted the resolution suggested by the inter-ministerial committee headed by Alon Liel: “The IDF, through its mental health department, will supply professional solutions for mental distress to soldiers injured by mystical cults.”29 This resolution, however, was never implemented.

New religious movements often emphasized the service of their members in the military as an indication of their contribution as citizens. Against attempts to brand them as adverse and dangerous to the military, Israeli new religious movements pointed to members who serve in elite units.30 In 1983, Erez Greenbaum, one of the leaders of the Emin movement in Israel and a veteran of Commando Unit 269, testified before the Glazer-Ta’asa Committee that the movement encourages its members to serve in the military and afterward in the reserve forces, and that they do not accept as members soldiers who are in active service. Rejecting the accusation that membership in cults caused psychological damage, he asserted that members of the Emin, who were previously exempt from army service because of psychiatric reasons changed their medical profile so that they could serve.31 Dani Davidi, one of the leaders of the Emin and a veteran of Commando Unit 269, rejected the accusation that members of the unit who joined the Emin were removed from reserve service: “Nobody was removed. We all continued to serve.…I joined the Emin when I was twenty-one years old and continued all the years to serve in the unit. I was privy to all activities and operations.…These are cheap, baseless accusations.”32

Members of new religious movements juxtaposed their contribution and republican citizenship to that of their adversaries, the anticult organization Yad L`Achim, whose ultraorthodox activists are exempt from serving in the IDF: “The people of Yad L` Achim, who do not serve in the Army, and live on our expense, try to teach us about Zionism and security. Ninety-five percent of our men served in the army. We have commando fighters, pilots, naval commando, whatever you like. A high percentage served in combat units. Our sons, who continue us, go to the army in great numbers.”33 Israeli Anthroposophists also claimed that the Waldorf schools, which are based on the pedagogical principals of Anthroposophy, prepare students to cope successfully with the challenges of the army service. Gilad Goldshmidt, a prominent Israeli Anthroposophist and one of the founders of Waldorf education in Israel, explained in an article (based on his PhD dissertation),

To summarize: We can see that most graduates of Waldorf education coped successfully with the challenges they faced during their military service. They noted several factors that helped them in this challenge: The ability to get out from the immediate situation so that they can observe it from outside; adaptability; diligence and capability for hard work; ability to form human contacts within a large range of situations and varied populations; maturity. Many of the graduates connected these capabilities with the education they received in school.34

The initiative of the Emin Society to open a one-year, pre-military preparatory program in their communal settlement, Ma`aleh Zvia, has put the question of contribution and belonging in a different light. The initiative moved beyond the question of individual contribution and belonging. The military preparatory academies (in Hebrew, mechinot), where 18-year-old Israeli youth spend several months to a year in study and communal work, were established in the late 1980s by religious movements. Religious leaders were concerned about the future encounters in the military between their young pupils and secular recruits and wanted to prepare them. Later, more initiatives sponsored by different institutions, including both religious and secular forms of Zionism, began offering young people similiar opportunities to prepare themselves before entering the military to commit themselves to a meaningful military service and citizen contribution. In 2003, there were about twenty such academies, and today there are about sixty. The academies must be approved by the ministry of defense, which supports the academies by postponing for one year the army service of the cadets, and by the education ministry, which funds the academies.35 The webpage of the Ministry of Education includes these details:

The pre-military academies were established to help prepare the youth, graduates of the education system, for a full and meaningful service in the IDF. To encourage volunteering to combat units, elite units and command and officer courses. To give them sufficient preparation and physical and mental strength for their encounter with military life. To cultivate young leadership, to enrich their Spiritual-Zionist world, to prepare responsible youth, who are imbued with a sense of duty, and are ready to carry national tasks and challenges in the areas of national security, society, education, and more.36

The Emin’s initiative to establish a pre-military preparatory, consequently, was intended to take part in an educational effort alongside other Zionist enterprises.

As mentioned above, the Emin Society was founded in England in 1971. Rafi Eyal and Erez Greenbaum, both veterans of Commando Unit 269, encountered the Emin in London, where they were employed in the Israel embassy security unit. After their return to Israel in 1977 they established an Emin branch in Israel. The Emin became successful in Israel, but encountered severe negative reactions. The Israeli press, religious and secular anticult groups, and government agencies condemned the Emin as a dangerous cult. The Emin was included in the list of cults that were investigated by Israeli governmental committees, and in 1989, the government barred the entry of the leader of the movement, Raymond Armin (Leo) to Israel.37 Notwithstanding the antagonism to the Emin by the authorities and public opinion, its members succeeded in establishing in 1986, with governmental approval, a settlement in the upper Galilee, Ma`aleh Zvia.38 The image of the Emin in Israel was improved because the establishment of the settlement fell within the framework of a government plan to Judaize the upper Galilee through the establishment of Jewish settlements in strategic locations, known as “outlooks” (mitzpim). The Emin was further legitimized through the establishment of a school in the settlement to serve the larger population in the area, as well as the offering of workshops and activities to neighboring villages and to Israeli tourists.39

As we have seen above, members of the Emin emphasized their positive attitude to army service and used the social capital of their members and leaders, who served in elite units, to counter the accusations that new religious movements posed a danger to the army. In early 2002, a nonprofit organization was established for the purpose of establishing a one-year, pre-military preparatory academy, to be named “Topaz,” in the communal settlement of the Emin, Ma`aleh Zvia.40 Topaz, like other minerals, is an important symbol in the Emin’s teachings. It signifies the fifth spiritual way, which they understand to be related to action and repair of the world.41

In April 2002, a request for the establishment of the Topaz academy in Ma`aleh Zvia was presented to the ministries of education and security. The head of the Israeli Security Agency, Avi Dichther, who served in Commando Unit 269 together with one of the Emin members, supported the initiative, and the ministry of defense approved the opening of the Topaz academy. However, following a public campaign by the ultraorthodox anticult movement Yad L`Achim, the ministry of education requested an examination of the relations between the academy and the Emin Society, and established a committee, headed by Zvi Zameret, to review the issue. In January 2003, the committee received a report about the Emin from the Israeli police that claims the Emin to be a hierarchical cult that convinces its members that they are superior and unique, regards outsiders as evil, and conceals its true activities. Based on the police report, and the Glazer-Ta`asa report, the Zameret committee recommended that the request of the Emin to open the Topaz academy be rejected. The minister of security accepted the recommendation and withdrew his approval for the establishment of the academy on the grounds that the Emin may use it to indoctrinate the cadets and convince them to join the Emin cult.42

The nonprofit organization Topaz appealed to the Israeli high court against the decision of the ministries of defense and education to reject the academy. The appeal denied that the Emin was a cult and presented it as a philosophy that encourages the perpetual study and development of the unique potential of every person. The founders of the Topaz academy asserted that it does not teach the Emin doctrines and is not different from other pre-military academies. They emphasized that Ma`aleh Zvia provides an appropriate location for the academy because of the high percentage of officers and combat soldiers in the village and their rich military experience. However, the high court denied their appeal. The judges opined that the apprehension of the ministries to approve and fund the academy, which was based on the report of the Zameret committee, and the Glazer-Tasa and Police reports, was justified, and they found no reason for the court to intervene.43

The incident stimulated public interest, and a few articles were published about it in the press. Moshe Gorali, published in the daily newspaper ha-Aretz an article entitled “They are allowed to command in the Commando, but are forbidden to prepare youth to military service.” As the title indicates, Gorali emphasized the prestigious military service of the Emin members and supported their initiative. Ben Caspit, in the article mentioned above, expressed an ambivalent stance toward the Emin’s aspiration to open the preparatory academy. On the one hand, he was impressed by the prestigious military careers of the Emin members: “The members of the Emin come from the elite of Israeli society, the salt of the earth…especially, veteran officers of high rank. There is a ‘commercial quantity’ of veterans of Commando Unit 269 in the Emin.”44 The use of the term “salt of the earth” is not incidental, as in the Israeli case it is embedded with the Zionist ethos of pioneering and contribution to the nation, symbolizing republican concepts of citizenship. However, Caspit also described Emin as one of the most mysterious cults in the world, with a strict hierarchical structure and a demand for blind obedience to the leader. His impression from Ma`aleh Zvia was that although the settlement is welcoming and friendly, there is also something strange and sinister in the air. “Most of the question marks keep hanging in the air,” he concludes. “Mystery hovers, like a thick cloud, around the cult, its beliefs, its deeds, and its members.”45

The Emin’s failed attempt to open the preparatory pre-military academy highlights the role of militarism in the reception of new religious and spiritual movements in Israel, and in their attempts to gain legitimization in Israeli society, but also the limitations. The Emin, similar to other new religious movements, used the prestigious army service of some of their followers in order to fend off the accusations that membership in alternative spiritual movements is incompatible with a commitment to Israeli society and its core values. The members of the Emin emphasized the contribution of their members to the army in order to gain legitimization and approval in Israeli society. Furthermore, they tried to actively contribute to the army by preparing youth to the army service, according to their own Emin-inspired pedagogical ideas, and using the military experience of their members.

As we have seen, members of new religious and alternative spiritual movements rejected the allegation that they posed a threat to Israel national security, and attempted to find legitimization within Israeli society by emphasizing the prestigious army service of their members, and by contributing to Israeli military ethos.

In the process of the accommodation and integration of new religious movements within Israeli society and culture, some of them accept the Israeli military ethos and appropriate it within their practices and doctrines. Israeli new religious movements use military terms and images and interpret the service in the army according to their alternative ideologies and theologies. The use of military terminology is prominent in the Chabad movement, a traditional Hasidic movement that underwent radical reformulations of its social structure, doctrines, and practices in the second half of the twentieth century. Under the leadership of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1902–1994), Chabad applied military terms and images in its outreach and messianic activities (both in Israel and the United States), such as its outreach caravans that are called “mitzvah tanks” (commandment tanks) and its young boys’ organization that is called “tzivos ha-Shem” (the army of God). The use of military images and terms in the contemporary Chabad movement appropriates Israeli militaristic vocabulary, but at the same time challenges the secular-militaristic Zionist ethos by presenting the Chabad movement and its leader-turned-Messiah as the force who will bring the true and final messianic victory to the people of Israel.46

The Israeli military ethos was appropriated and adapted also by Israeli followers of the Anthroposophical Society. Anthroposophy, which was founded in the early twentieth century by Rudolf Steiner, is today one the largest and most successful alternative spiritual movements in Israel. A few Anthroposophical circles, mostly of German-speaking immigrants, were active in Mandatory Palestine already before the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. In the late 1970s, at the same period time that the Emin and other new religious movements reached Israel, several young Israelis, many of them former Kibbutz members, became interested in Anthroposophy. The Israeli Anthroposophists established homes for children and people with special needs, as well as a settlement, Kibbutz Harduf, in the upper Galilee. In the last decades, Anthroposophical education became quite popular in Israel. The first Waldorf schools were opened in the late 1980s, and today there are about 200 Waldorf schools and kindergartens in Israel.

Anthroposophy encountered much less opposition than other new religious movements in Israel. However, the ultraorthodox anticult organization Yad L`Achim and some ultraorthodox politicians branded Anthroposophy as a cult and exposed Christological and anti-Jewish elements in Steiner’s teachings. Notwithstanding this criticism, Anthroposophy was not included in the governmental anticult reports, and the Israeli public generally does not perceive it as a cult.

Many Israeli Anthroposophists are critical of Israeli nationalism and some of them are active in Jewish-Arab coexistence groups and in anti-occupation activities. However, Israeli Anthroposophists also emphasize the high number of veterans of elite units among their ranks and adopt the Israeli militaristic vocabulary. Thus, for instance, the Israeli Anthroposophist Avishay Gershony wrote the following in his book Concerning Thinking, Freedom and Pain, in which he offers critical reflection on the early years of Kibbutz Harduf (which is called in the book Kibbutz Katlav):

In those first years Katlav aspired to project an image of a normal young kibbutz so that we will not be considered a cult, and our subsidy will not be cut. The self-image of Katlav was more complicated. We saw ourselves as a community of people that their Karma, i.e., their shared experience in previous life cycles, brought them into this hill, in the midst of the spiritual and cultural desert that spreads all over.…The reason that we came together was to make this spiritual desert bloom. We were the Commando Unit (ha-Sayeret).47

This self-reflective passage reveals that the Israeli Anthroposophists were worried about being identified as a cult and tried to present themselves to the Israeli public as a “normal” kibbutz. Gerhsony’s description shows how the self-image of the young Israeli Anthroposophists was embedded in the Israeli national ethos, and combined Anthroposophical and Israeli national values and articles of faith. Gershony appropriates two major Israeli national tropes—“making the desert bloom” and “commando unit”—and gives them an Anthroposophical twist. According to Gershony, the young Anthroposophists aspired to make the spiritual, rather than the actual, desert bloom through the establishment of a kibbutz (the flagship of the Zionist-Socialist movement) and regarded themselves as a prestigious spiritual—rather than military—commando unit, that combatted against the spiritual desolation that surrounds them.

However, service in a commando unit is not only a metaphor for Israeli Anthroposophists. Interestingly, and like the case of the Emin, it appears that there are a significant number of veterans of Commando Unit 269 among Israeli Anthroposophists. The connection between Anthroposophy and the former army service of some of its followers was discussed, from an Anthroposophical perspective, in an article published in the Anthroposophist journal Adam/Olan in 2015. The article, entitled “From an Order to an Order,” observes that at least twelve Israeli Anthroposophists, most of them living in Kibbutz Harduf, are veterans of Unit 269. It raises the questions:

Is there a Karmic connection between these two small frameworks—the commando unit and Harduf—that leads certain types from one to the other? Is the unique character of the service in the commando unit, the physical and social profile of its conscripts, and its extreme training related somehow to Steiner’s spiritual science? Can the unexpected recruitment of the veterans of the secretive commando unit of the IDF to the ranks of Anthroposophy teach something about the nature of unit 269, or about the nature of Anthroposophy?48

The article brings the answers of four Israeli Anthroposophists who served in the elite unit to these questions. The interviewees give positive answers to all these questions. They see parallels between the extreme physical and mental challenges of the commando unit and the spiritual challenge of Anthroposophy and say that the commando training protocol can be regarded as a kind of a spiritual initiation. Arie Ben-David, a senior Israeli Anthroposophist, who served in Commando Unit 269 in the 1980s, made this statement:

It is not chance that brings people of a certain kind to the Unit, which offers extreme physical and mental challenges. Anthroposophy is also an extreme process—from the spiritual aspect. There is a certain connection between the search for the essence of knowledge, and the search for limit of (physical) possibilities.49

Ben-David observes that the tremendous physical and mental efforts of the Commando military training require the separation of the person’s “I” from his body and soul. This, he asserts, consists of the beginning of spiritual training, and of the aptitude to discern the inner and superior powers of human essence from the more material elements.50 The veterans also see parallels between the elitist, hierarchical, and secretive structure of the commando unit and that of the Anthroposophical Society and ancient mystery and chivalry orders. Yiftah Ben-Aharon, a poet and a teacher of Anthroposophy, observed that Commando Unit 269 is structured like an old spiritual mystery order. “It is very hierarchical, compartmentalized, elitist. The people there feel that they are something special.…There is a (military) secret which is revealed only after a year and a half, and then you become a “secret partner.” From this aspect, it is very similar to an initiation rite. There are a series of difficult examinations, and if you passed them, you discover the secret.”51 Ron Lieberman, also a veteran of Commando Unit 269, and the founder of the Anthroposophical rehabilitation center Hiram in Kibbutz Harduf, observed that the veterans of the commando unit call themselves “The Order of Seekers of Good.”52 The name was chosen (by the founder of the commando unit) because the letters of the Hebrew word ‘good’ (tov), have the Hebrew numerical value (gematria) of 269. “The connotation,” said Liberman, “is definitely that of an order.”53 Yakov Arnan, one of the founders of Kibbutz Harduf, who is a veteran of Commando Unit 269 and the nephew of the founder of the unit, Avraham Arnan (1930–1980), observed that his uncle founded the unit in the form of an “Arthurian Order”: “He created a form of a chivalry order in an utterly instinctive way.”54

All the veterans cited in the article, agree that commando unit combatants were members of ancient mystery religions, or military religious orders in previous reincarnations, and that their service in the commando unit was part of their Karma. Thus, for instance, Arie David said, “One can say, in reference to Karma, that many people arrived to the Unit as a result of their acquaintance with ancient mystery cults, in which exertion and endurance were part of the training. These souls returned to the modern era, and wanted to experience this aspect again, as part of their maturation process.”55

Some of the veterans expressed criticism of the commando unit’s lack of spirituality and regarded their “recruitment” to the ranks of Anthroposophy as a further continuation of their spiritual quest. Yiftach Ben-Aharon said that the commando unit is an order without spirituality,56 and Yakov Arnan said the commando unit is “a chivalry order without its spiritual contexts.”57 According to Arnan’s Anthroposophical perspective, the commando unit did not develop in the right direction: “Today, it is critical that the Martian-military impulse will turn into a Mercurian-healing one…from this perspective, the chivalry of ‘the seekers of good,’ that is, of Sayeret Matkal, was supposed to take that course, if it would have developed in the right way.”58 Arnan says that many of the veterans, who were attracted to the commando unit because they were knights in their previous reincarnations, continued to look for spirituality in other places. He notes that some veterans of Unit 269 joined other spiritual groups, such as the Emin settlement Ma`aleh Zvia, and Kibbutz Smadar, which was founded by the Gurdjieff-inspired Israeli spiritual teacher Joseph Safra.59 Similar to the members of the Emin, who aspired to contribute their spiritual perspective to the IDF through the establishment of a paramilitary preparatory academy, Arnan opened, during his reserve service in the army, a unit for developing moral and leadership values in the IDF’s leadership academy. According to Arnan, “one can say that the unit operated also under the inspiration of the Anthroposophical perception and dealt with the fundamental issues of the military.”60

The interviews with the veterans of Unit 269 highlight that Israeli Anthroposophists see the army service as compatible with their Anthroposophical convictions. They accept the high value given in Israeli society to the army and its elite unit, and they are proud of their contribution to the IDF. Yet, they explain and reinterpret the Israeli militaristic ethos according to their Anthroposophical beliefs, integrate Israeli militarism within their alternative spiritual worldview, and aspire to contribute their Anthroposophical perspectives to the Israeli military effort. As such, personal development or evolvement combines with good citizenship contribution to make Anthroposophists (in their mind) ideal soldiers and part and parcel of Israel’s militarism.

New religious and spiritual movements, who offer alternative beliefs, values, and practices, are often confronted with negative reactions from established religious institutions, government agencies, and public opinions. New religious movements attempt to reject their negative image and their branding as cults and strive to gain acceptance and legitimacy in the various societies and cultures they operate in. Many times, new religious movements accept core social values, beliefs, and conducts and adapt and interpret them according to their alternative theologies and ideologies.

Israeli militarism plays an important role in the controversies and campaigns against alternative spiritual movements, which are portrayed as cults. Anticult groups portray new religious movements as adverse and dangerous to the army and regard the service in the army as a remedy to the cults and the harms caused by them. The response of Israeli new religious movements to these accusations is to emphasize their positive attitude and their contribution to the army. As we have seen, members of both the Israeli Emin movement and the Anthroposophical Society, as well as of other new religions and spiritual movements, pointed out the large number of veterans of elite units among their ranks. Followers of the Emin attempted to open a pre-military program that will prepare Israeli youth for the army, according to the Emin way. Furthermore, some Israeli new religious movements accept the high symbolic value of the army, especially its elite units, and integrate and appropriate the Israeli national military ethos within the framework of their alternative spiritual and religious ideas. Thus, the military service in the IDF, which is a core value of Israeli society, shaped in significant ways the reception of new religious movements in Israel. Israeli militarisms played an important role in the confrontations between new religious and spiritual movements and Israeli society and state and the efforts of such movements to gain legitimation. Furthermore, the confrontation and adaptation of Israeli militarism had a significant impact on the social formations and the ideologies and practices of new religious and spiritual movements in Israel.

The article was prepared in the framework of the research project, “New Religious Movements in Israel: Confrontation, Adaptation and Legitimation,” funded by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1614). We are grateful to Rachel Werczberger, Adam Klin-Oron, the peer-readers of the article, and the editors of Nova Religio for their helpful suggestions and comments.


Ben Caspit, “They Want to Train,” Ma`ariv (18 April 2003): 23 [Hebrew]. The title of Caspit’s article plays on the similarity between the verb “to train” in Hebrew, le-amen, and the name “Emin.”


Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (New York: SUNY Press, 1992), 17–23.


Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance, 19–20; Yuval Amram, “Spiritual Communities Settlement in the Galilee Mountains in the Late 20th Century” (PhD dissertation, University of Haifa, 2020), 229 [Hebrew].


Yonatan Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” Adam/Olam 35 (May–June 2015): 11 [Hebrew]. For a German translation of the article see Yonatan Levy, “Kommando 269 `Die Einheit,`”Info3 (January 2018): 19.


On legitimating strategies of new religious movements in face of public hostilities, see James R. Lewis, Legitimating New Religious Movements (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 12–16; Elisabeth Arweck, “Globalisation and New Religious Movements,” in Religion, Globalization and Culture, eds. Peter Beyer and Lori Beaman (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 265–266.


On the globalization of new religious movements, see: James A. Backford, “New Religious Movements and Globalization,” in New Religious Movements in the 21st Century: Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective, eds. P.C. Lucas and T. Robbins (New York & London: Taylor & Francis, 2004), 253–263; Peter B. Clarke, New Religions in Global Perspective (Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2006); Elisabeth Arweck, “Globalisation and New Religious Movements,” 253–280.


Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance; Yaakov Ariel, “Paradigm Shift: New Religious Movements and Quests for Meaning and Community in Contemporary Israel,” Nova Religio 13, no. 4 (2010): 4–22; Boaz Huss & Rachel Werczberger, “New Age Culture in Israel,” Israel Studies Review 29, no. 2 (2015): 5–6.


Veronique Altglas, From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logic of Bricolage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Shai Ben-Tal, “Bnei Baruch: The Story of a New Religious Movement,” Akadmot 25 (2010): 149–169 [Hebrew]; Massimo Introvigne, “Pragmatic Kabbalists: Bnei Baruch and the Globalization of Kabbalah,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 13 (2017): 1–38; Jody Myers, Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007).


Guy Ben-Porat, Between State and Synagogue, the Secularization of Contemporary Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Gabriel Cavaglion, “The Theoretical Framing of a Social Problem: The Case of Societal Reaction to Cults in Israel,” Israel Affairs 14, no. 1 (2008): 84–102; Marianna Ruah-Midbar and Adam Klin-Oron, “‘Tell Me Who Your Enemies Are’: Government Reports About the ‘Cult’ Phenomenon in Israel,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 4 (2013): 810–826; Nurit Zaidman-Dvir and Stephen Sharot, “The Response of Israeli Society to new Religious Movements: ISKCON and Teshuvah,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31, no. 3 (1992): 279–295.


Masua Sagiv, “The State and New Religious Movements,” in Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel, eds. Shai Feraro and James R. Lewis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 115–132; Ruah-Midbar and Klin-Oron, “Tell Me Who Your Enemies Are.”


The role militarism plays in the confrontations, legitimization, and adaptations of new religious movements in Israel is quite unique. However, for a study of the confrontations over Neopagan activities in the United States army, see Chas. S Clifton, “Fort Hood’s Wiccans and the Problem of Pacifism,” unpublished paper presented to the New Religious Movements Group at The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, November 2020 We are grateful to the editors of Nova Religio who turned our attention to this interesting study.


Uri Ben-Eliezer, “Rethinking the Civil-Military Relations Paradigm: the inverse relation between militarism and praetorianism through the example of Israel,” Comparative Political Studies 30 no. 3 (1997): 356.


Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled, Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


Guy Ben-Porat and B.S. Turner, “Introduction: Contemporary Dilemmas of Israeli Citizenship,” in The Contradictions of Israeli Citizenship: Land, Religion and State, eds G. Ben-Porat and Bryan S. Turner (London: Routledge, 2011), 13.


Yagil Levy, “How casualty sensitivity affects civilian control: The Israeli experience,” International Studies Perspectives 12, no 1 (2011): 68–88.


Baruch Kimmerling, “Patterns of militarism in Israel,” European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie 34, no. 2 (1993): 198.


Yagil Levy, Israel’s death hierarchy (New York: New York University Press, 2012).


Ibid; see also Yagil Levy, “The war of the peripheries: a social mapping of IDF casualties in the Al-Aqsa Intifada,” Social Identities 12.3 (2006): 309–324.


Knesset Protocol, meeting 181 of the 10th Knesset, 2 March 1983, vol. 20, 1566 However, it is interesting to note that the IDF representative in the committee, Colonel Ron Levy, asserted that the problem of cults in the army was negligible, and that no soldier was ever released from army service because of belonging to a cult. See Glazer-Ta’asa Committee Protocols, Israel State Archive גל-9696, file 1335, 30 May 1982, 3 [Hebrew].


Israel Landers, “Take My Soul (2): How to Get out of It,” Davar (7 July 1983): 43 [Hebrew].


Glazer-Ta’asa Committee Protocols, 22 February 1982, 2–4, 30 May 1982, 3.


Caspit, “They Want to Train,” 25.


Nili Mandler, “Families in Four Mystical Cult’s Villages Rise their Children according to the Cult’s Culture,” Haaretz (24 February 1987) [Hebrew].


Protocol of the State Control Committee, 29 October 1994, 25–26 [Hebrew].


Press Release of the State Control Committee, Jerusalem, 29 November 1994 [Hebrew].


Concerned Parents against Cults Plan of Action, 2 July 1981, Israel State Archive 5052/11-פ,

16 [Hebrew].


Landers, “Take My Soul,” 43.


Government Resolution 4872 (תמ/308)

9 February 1995.


The only movement whose members refuse to serve in the army are Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose number in Israel is very small. The IDF exempts members of the movement from military service on conscientious grounds. See Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance, 27.


Glazer-Ta’asa Committee Protocol 18.4.82, 4; Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance, 27.


Caspit, “They Want to Train,” 25.


Caspit, “They Want to Train,” 2003.


Gilad Goldschmidt, “How Waldorf School Graduates Cope with the Challenges They Face during Their Military Service: a Ten-Year Overview,” Education and Context 36 (2014): 92 [Hebrew].


Yuval Wargen, “Pre-military Mechinot,” Knesset Information and Research Center, 2006, [Hebrew]; Asaf Winiger, “Pre-military Mechinot,” Knesset Information and Research Center, 2017, [Hebrew].


Beit-Halahmi, Despair and Deliverance, 24; Marianna Ruah-Midbar and Adam Klin-Oron, “‘Tell Me Who Your Enemies Are’: Government Reports About the ‘Cult’ Phenomenon in Israel,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 4 (2013): 817.


Amram, “Spiritual Communities Settlement,” 230–231.


Amram, “Spiritual Communities Settlement,” 287–295.


Guidestar. Israel non-profit organizations,; Moshe Gorali, “They are allowed to Command in the Commando, but are forbidden to prepare youth to military service,” Haaretz (12 October 2003) [Hebrew].


Zeev Ben-Arie, Search for the Truth: Emin Journey (Karkur: Prague Press, 2018), 209 [Hebrew].


Masua Sagiv, “The State and New Religious Movements,” in Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel, eds. Shai Feraro and James R. Lewis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 123.


High Court of Justice 8777/03, “Topaz” v. The Ministry of Defense, 58/6 PD 281 [2004] [Hebrew].


Caspit, “They Want to Train,” 24.


Caspit, “They Want to Train,” 23.


Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 175.


Avishay Gershony, Concerning Thinking, Freedom and Pain (Avishay Gershony: Kibbutz Harduf, 2015), 59.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 11.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 11.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 12.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 14.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 16.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 16.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 18.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 12.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 14.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 18.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 21.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 18.


Levy, “From and Order to an Order,” 20.