IDF Reserve Brigadier General Effi Eitam, 67, was raised in Kibbutz Ein Gev along the eastern shore of the Kinneret in the shadow of the Golan Heights. Throughout his childhood, Syrian rockets rained down on his small Jewish community.
“We were hostages to the bombardment,” he told The Jewish Press. “Bomb shelters were a part of our homes similar to the situation today in the Jewish communities along the Gaza border. The Syrians made no effort to settle the area. For them, it was merely a launching site for their missiles.”
After marrying, Eitam moved to the settlement of Keshet in the northern Golan Heights and then to the Golan moshav of Nov, where he lives today, the father of eight children.
In the Yom Kippur War, Eitam received a Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery. With only three bazooka shells, a machine gun, and rifles, Eitam and five soldiers fought off a Syrian tank division, forcing its retreat.
Promoted up the ranks, the tough-looking, bearded commander took part in the surprise commando raid on Entebbe and led a Golani unit during the Lebanon War. He took a two-year hiatus to learn Torah in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and returned to the army as its highest ranking religious soldier, eventually becoming a brigadier general.
When Prime Ministers Rabin and Barak attempted to cede the Golan Heights to Syria, Eitam’s wife, Illit, played a leading role in the campaign to save this strategic area. Meanwhile, Eitam’s aggressive tactics in commando operations, along with blunt political declarations, made him a target of the media and set the army’s higher echelon against him.
But many religious Zionist leaders attributed the fierce opposition to Eitam, not only to his maverick battle strategies and vocal criticism of the government, but to his bushy beard and knitted kippah as well.
“It was a combination of factors,” Eitam told The Jewish Press. “My staunch Zionist religious beliefs, unabashed rightist opinions, and aggressive military posture epitomized the things which most upset the Left, both then and today. Back then, I was pretty much the only religious army commander, and the rightist media wasn’t as developed as it is today, so I had no solid support, and my side of the story was buried under the avalanche of slander directed against me.”
When it became obvious that the army high-command was putting stumbling blocks in Eitam’s way to becoming a top-ranking general, he decided to leave the military after 30 years of service and enter politics. He led the National Religious Party, the Mafdal, for two years, serving as Minister of Housing in a Sharon government. When Ariel Sharon pushed his Disengagement plan, Eitam left the party and cabinet and moved to Gush Katif in protest.
The Jewish Press: What is the military solution to the ongoing terror from Gaza?
Eitam: We have to start from the top and eliminate the terrorist leadership, working all the way down the ladder until the teenagers in Gaza City and Khan Yunis understand that a future as a terrorist doesn’t pay. Knocking down deserted buildings doesn’t deter anyone.
Why not conquer Gaza completely?
I don’t think it’s time. Militarily we could do it, but an army needs political back-up, and today’s political leadership doesn’t have the conviction and strength for such a move.
They would only turn over the captured area to Abu Mazen, and what would that gain? Within months, the rockets coming from Gaza would once again send Israelis running to bomb shelters.
What about the situation up north? How will America’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights affect Israeli life in the area?
President Trump deserves a big blessing for his bold and historic declaration. I think recognition by the United States has great importance.
First, President Trump sent out a moral message to the world that any nation or terror organization that uses territory to carry out acts of belligerency against another nation can expect to find itself stripped of that territory.
Second, President Trump’s act makes it clear that International Law does not obligate individual nations to abide by its rulings. Immoral laws passed by the International Court of Justice whose purpose is to advance the goals of terror organizations and the countries that support them do not override the laws of sovereign nations.
Third, it put an end to all the talk, both in Israel and internationally, that Israel cannot determine its own territory and borders. This, of course, has broad implications for the future of Judea and Samaria.
Can we expect to see more investment in, and development of, the Golan Heights in wake of President Trump’s action?
Yes, although perhaps not immediately. Young people today want to live near the big cities. We have to work more actively to highlight the idealistic aspects of living in the Golan, in addition to the excellent quality of life. But more economic investment and development is sure to come.
You grew up on a secular kibbutz and were a decorated soldier. What made you drop everything and join Mercaz HaRav?
The Yom Kippur War caused me to search for a deeper, broader meaning to life. It wasn’t only the encounter with death; it was the fact that young soldiers from all walks of life were willing to fight for something greater than their personal lives and sacrifice themselves for our country.
Growing up on a secular kibbutz, I was raised in an atmosphere of Zionism, a love for the Land of Israel, joy in our national revival, a sense of joint responsibility, and the nobility of hard work for the national cause. But I felt that some big piece of the puzzle was missing. Why was I a part of the Nation of Israel? Just because I was born here?
I felt I had to dig to the roots to know why we had to fight for the Jewish homeland. So, like everyone else, I had heard about Rav Kook. In the army, I met soldiers who studied in the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva, and I was attracted to their very deep and intellectual understanding of Judaism.
For me, becoming a baal teshuvah was not running away from the world, as the phenomena is sometimes wrongly described, but rather the addition of another dimension to my life – to be attached not only to Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, but to Torat Yisrael as well.
Do you think a religious soldier could ever become Commander-in-Chief of the IDF?
I do. Things are changing, little by little. When I was a soldier, I was one of the only religious commanders. Now there are religious commanders in every Tzahal division, filled with idealism and faith that spreads through the ranks. As we build the spiritual might of the nation and come to understand our true national Torah identity, and our Divine connection to Eretz Yisrael, the Torah-side of the IDF will become more powerful as well.
The past several years, many rabbis have accused the IDF of waging a war against religious soldiers by regulating beards, arranging mixed combat units, assigning women instructors to dati units, employing leftist lecturers, making religious soldiers attend performances where women sing, etc. Can you comment on this?
Unfortunately, there exists a small “intellectual academia” in Israel that is highly organized and funded by foreign monies, which promotes leftist ideology and supposedly enlightened Western notions of democracy, equality, progressiveness, and the like.
They seek to weaken Jewish values, and one of their favorite battlegrounds is the army, which has the ability to influence an entire generation of young people for good or for bad and thus alter the Jewish character of Medinat Yisrael.
Some in the army command share these goals and allow this non-Jewish propaganda to enter the ranks. But I am confident that the constant increase in highly-motivated dati soldiers, graduates of mechinot pre-army religious academies, Hesder soldiers, the Netzach Yehuda brigade, and the eyes-on supervision of the rabbis will prevent the Hellenization of the IDF.
Today, you lecture to students on the tenets of religious Zionism and head a company that searches for oil all over the world. Are there oil resources in the Golan?
That’s something I can’t speak about at this time.