Analysis: A losing battle for the rabbis

By Shmuel Rosner, December 17, 2009
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It is a confrontation that was long overdue. Not the military against the religious hesder yeshivahs, nor the Minister of Defence against the rabbis. It is the battle between the clear-eyed and the confused, those who remember that military affairs should be decided by the political leadership and those who tend to pretend that all decisions can be the prerogative of rabbis; between those understanding that no military can function without a clear chain of command, and those pretending to have two chains of command.

In reality, it is not even a confrontation between the state and the rabbis. It is more a culmination of the ongoing struggle within religious Zionism over the role and the authority of the state. And disregarding the provocations and harsh statements made by the vocal extremists, the losers this week were the few rabbis who long ago lost any sense of their real importance and real place in Israel’s public arena.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed — the one whose yeshivah’s ties with the IDF were severed by Defence Minster Ehud Barak — declared early Monday that his stance was “more or less accepted by all hesder yeshivah rabbis”. Such statements leave some room for interpretation over the precise meaning of “more or less” and what amounts to “acceptance”.

In fact, many Zionist rabbis — probably most — were dragged into forced, reluctant support of Rabbi Melamed even though they believe that he had crossed a line that should not be crossed. When they “more or less” supported him, it was “more” on matters related to style — the confrontational language used by Barak — and “less” on matters concerning content.

These rabbis understand that the military cannot tolerate a call for insubordination by the leader of a yeshivah in which soldiers reside and are being educated.

Two religious former generals — well-known to the community of religious Zionists — took to the airwaves Monday morning. Both were understanding and generally supportive of Mr Barak’s decision. It is reasonable to suspect that a silent majority among religious Zionists feels the same.

The religious sector also feels uncomfortable, uneasy, with the fact that the hesder yeshivahs have become such contentious arrangements. The hesder and its brave, dedicated and idealistic soldiers were — still are — the pride of this community. Managing the delicate relations between the military and the yeshivahs is an art that was mastered by the leaders of the community with skill and experience for long years. Some of these leaders were amazed and quite angered by the ability of irresponsible rabbis, detached from reality, to risk all they have achieved.

The aloofness of Rabbi Melamed, his inability to understand the complexity of the society in which he operates, is evident. The settler movement and its supporters were able, in the course of many years, to achieve quite a lot by smartly manipulating the government and toying with public opinion. It was quite efficient in making the life of political leaders more difficult, in winning legislative battles, in overcoming the decision of government bureaucracy.

But one clash it could never win; there was one clash that the general public will not tolerate. When settlers started battling against the military, when it wasn’t politicians they were trying to beat but rather the sacred cow of the military establishment, they lost.

The few rebellious rabbis might be all-powerful and influential. But in the military they have found a rival that they simply cannot defeat.

Shmuel Rosner blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010