Israel severs link between religious school and IDF

By Anshel Pfeffer, December 17, 2009
Students at Har Bracha yeshivah on the West Bank. Pupils have declared they will not evacuate settlements

Students at Har Bracha yeshivah on the West Bank. Pupils have declared they will not evacuate settlements

Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to end the Har Bracha yeshivah’s hesder arrangement — which allows 18-year-olds to combine Torah studies with army service — has sent reverberations through the IDF and the network of yeshivahs which have, for decades, enjoyed close relations with the military.

“This isn’t about just one yeshivah,” said a senior rabbi this week. “This is a battle for the soul of the next generation of the national-religious community.”

The yeshivah’s head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, first fell foul of the IDF’s top brass four years ago, when he advised soldiers to disobey orders and not participate in the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. The General Staff at the time recommended severing relations with Har Bracha, which is situated on the West Bank. But then Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz declined to change the yeshivah’s status in order not to exacerbate the crisis between the religious right-wing and the state following disengagement.

This time, Rabbi Melamed angered the army’s commanders when he gave backing to soldiers from his yeshivah, who hoisted placards announcing their refusal to take part in the removal of settler outposts.

He later gave media interviews accusing the generals of politicising the army by allowing it to participate in the dismantling of settlements.

Ehud Barak was inclined to go down the conciliatory path this time too. He waited for over a week for Rabbi Melamed to find a compromise that would allow him to continue supporting his students while announcing that politics should be kept out of the army. But Rabbi Melamed steadfastly refused even a meeting at the minister’s office, leaving Mr Barak with little choice.

“Barak should have acted with more tact,” said one head of a hesder yeshivah. “Melamed was rude, it’s true, but by kicking him out of hesder, Barak has made him into the martyr for the ultra-right wing and people have an affinity for the underdog. Instead of limiting disobedience in the military, more students will flock to his yeshivah.”

A senior defence official who follows the settler community closely said this week that, “for most Israelis, disengagement from Gaza was over in six days, but for the settlers and their supporters, this is still a festering wound that will continue to affect everything they do.”

Rabbis like Eliezer Melamed are giving a voice to a growing group among the young religious who have sworn that they will do everything possible to prevent another pullback from the settlements.

For the past two decades, the older brothers of these yeshivah students have been replacing the old secular kibbutz elite in the ranks of the IDF’s leading combat units and the field officers’ corps. Now, many are wondering whether they should join the army at all, fearing that they may have to carry out a mission to evict their own families from their homes.

“Har Bracha is proof that the army wants us only when we are on our best behaviour,” said one yeshivah student. “I and many of my friends are now asking ourselves if this is the army we want to serve in.”

Last updated: 5:32pm, December 17 2009