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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Whither Hesder?

For more than forty years, the IDF has had a program called 'Hesder'. While the exact breakdown has varied from time to time, the basic idea has always been that boys spend five years in a Yeshiva which is a 'hesder' Yeshiva, as part of which they spend approximately a year and a half (as opposed to the three years men generally spend) on active duty in the army. When they complete their time in Yeshiva and the army, they continue to do reserve duty.

Until the Lebanon War of 1982, the Hesder boys made up relatively homogenuous units. After the 1982 'Peace for Galilee' War in which the tanks corps (which were by then dominated by Hesder) took a disproportionate number of casualties, an effort was made to spread the 'Hesdernikim' out more among other units, while making sure that each unit which included Hesder boys had a critical mass of 'Hesdernikim.'

Please note that I am NOT talking about Nachal Charedi, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Nachal Charedi was designed to be a homogenuous unit of religious boys - only - with strict separation of the sexes (over the years, with the modified dispersal of the Hesder boys described above, the army was not always as strict about separating the sexes as it was thirty years ago, although Hesder boys still did not generally serve in mixed units) which was intended to attract Charedi boys who no longer wished to remain in Yeshiva and who might otherwise avoid the army. Many boys who in the previous generation would have gone to Hesder moved over to Nachal Charedi as well. But that's not the main subject of this post.

The Hesder boys were the creme de la creme of the 'National Religious' (Dati Leumi) community.

This past summer, during the 'disengagement,' many of those who refused orders to expel Jews from their Gaza homes were 'Hesdernikim.' At the time, there was talk of doing away with Hesder. Now, the army is apparently trying to smother Hesder with kindness - and have the same effect.

It should be noted at the outset that until the early 1980's, the bulk of the army's elite units came from the Kibbutzim. With the Kibbutz movement's sharp turn to the left, many of those boys have sought less rigorous army service, with the result that much of the IDF's officer corps now comes from Hesder. A disproportionate number of Hesder boys serve in combat units.

This morning's Jerusalem Post reports:

Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern [Stern is religious himself. CiJ] are pushing a list of reforms in the hesder yeshivot that many yeshiva heads see as a direct attack on the entire program. Stern has said he opposed parochialism in the IDF and would prefer to see a more homogeneous military.

Stern's critics say he unjustly identifies hesder as a potential subversive element in the IDF that puts religious directives above military orders, and many hesder yeshiva heads would rather dissolve their yeshivot rather than cave in to IDF demands for change.

The yeshiva heads are protesting a 30 percent reduction in the number of hesder soldiers and the complete integration of hesder soldiers among other soldiers. Presently, hesder soldiers are assured that in each company of 40, at least 20 are religious. The idea is to strengthen the influence of the religious soldiers and limit secular influences.

Of the 40 hesder yeshivot, only four have agreed to send their students to integrated companies: Rabbi Motti Elon's Yeshivat Hakotel, Rabbi Re'em Hakohen's Otniel Yeshiva, Rabbi Benyahu Brunner's Safed Yeshiva and Rabbi Haim Druckman's Or Etzion.
Rabbi Elyakim Levanon said his yeshiva in Elon Moreh would sooner abandon hesder than agree to integration.


The IDF, he said, was also trying to create a more effective hesder program by reducing the number of students and weeding out the ones who did not belong in the Torah-based framework. A majority of the students, he said, belonged in hesder. But there was a minority that was "hitching a ride" on the program to benefit from a shorter military service and they, he said, needed to be removed. [30% is an awfully large 'minority.' CiJ]


But for the hesder yeshiva heads, the most hotly protested of the reforms, included in the Ben-Bassat recommendations for IDF reorganization, is lengthening the military service of the hesder soldiers from about 16 months to two years. This would coincide with a reduction in mandatory army service for other soldiers from three years to two years.

"If implemented it means the end of hesder yeshivot," said Rabbi David Stav, spokesman for the Union of Hesder Yeshivot and head of Yeshivat Petah Tikva. "There is no reason for a young religious man facing the draft to join hesder if he ends up serving the same time as anybody else."

Stav said that even if the hesder military service is not lengthened to two years, the shortening of service for all soldiers would hurt the hesder yeshivot since hesder soldiers would be saving only eight months instead of a year and eight months. But he estimated that it would not result in their demise.


Hesder, first created more than 30 years ago to allow religious soldiers to combine Torah studies with military service, today encompasses about 6,000 soldier-students and about 40 yeshivot. It is a five-year program that sandwiches military service between yeshiva studies. Some of the IDF's most idealistic and motivated soldiers belong to the hesder. Of approximately 1,200 that are drafted annually, more than 800 join combat units.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the hesder yeshiva in Bracha, a settlement near Nablus, said that in the coming year between 10 percent and 20% of his 150 students would opt out of hesder. Instead, they would follow the route chosen by haredi yeshiva students by postponing army service to learn Torah. Later in life, often after getting married and having children, these yeshiva students would serve shorter army service [if they don't decide to just stay in Yeshiva as the Charedim do. CiJ].

He said that a shorter army service would allow his students to start academic studies earlier and finish advanced degrees earlier.

"We'll produce talented individuals, such as physicists, journalists and businessmen, who will make an impact on Israeli society," said Melamed, who pointed out that the objective of religious Zionists, as opposed to haredim, is to transform the face of Israeli society.

Rabbi Tzfania Drori, head of the hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Shmona said he established the alternative route of postponing army service, known as "Torah is his occupation," two years ago after his hesder students were forced to serve with female soldiers.

"We can always fall back on that option if we need to," he said.


Melamed was not overly concerned about the negative ramifications of dissolving hesder. He said that religious Zionist influence in the IDF has been minimal anyway. Proof of this is its inability to stop disengagement via mass insubordination. Therefore, taking a more passive role in the IDF would not be a big loss to religious Zionists.

"If the IDF insists on ruining the hesder, they'll be hurting no one but themselves," he said. "They already have about 20% of soldiers refusing to do reserve duty. Without us that number will rise to 40%."

What's left unsaid here is how many National Religious boys are disillusioned enough with the direction that the State is taking to leave whatever is left of the Hesder system altogether and switch over to the Charedi camp. There is some of that going on already. In that regard, you may wish to see these two posts to this blog.

I'm not the only one who believes that the national religious boys will start opting for Charedi Yeshivas. Westbankblog writes this morning:

The overall feeling in the Dati Leumi community (national religious) is that the army is making problems for no reason. The article states, that out of the 1200 Hesder yeshiva boys drafted every year, about 800 go into combat units. It is also well known that a good proportion of those in elite units (I've heard that they make up 50%) are those who wear knitted kipot. (I don't have a link to these statistics - if anyone has I would appreciate the information). So the inclusion of Hesder yeshiva boys in the army is not detrimental to the army - it is a boon. If you consider the fact that overall religious people have more children than the secular, and in future years there will just be more potential candidates for this stream of army service, it seems that forcing these potential draftees to opt out like the Charedim (Ultra-Orthodox) is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
She's right. But my guess is that this is just a prelude to an attempt to force the far more numerous Charedim into the army. If you thought Amona was a brutal battle, I fear that trying to force the Charedim into the army would - R"L - be even worse.


At 1:34 PM, Blogger westbankmama said...

Thanks for the mention Carl.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger westbankmama said...

Just to clarify:
These boys are on "active duty" for the entire 5 years - they leave the yeshiva every few months for training and turns of duty, and are limited in their ability to pursue academic degrees or any other occupation during that time.

The army wouldn't have let them into elite units otherwise, or invested in their training.

Just as the expulsion was a (hopefully) last desperate attempt by the left to grasp the reins of power, we are seeing in this issue the (hopefully) last gasp of the anti-religious attitude in the army.

The army's largest miscalculation is that it totally underestimates the opinions of the current generation of inductees. They do not have the go-along-to-get-along approach of their parents - many of whom were the pioneers of the hesder program. In fact, some of them have (literally) had such an attitude "beaten out of them" by recent events. The bitterness of career officers forced to comply with the odious expulsion is not going to go away so quickly.



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