Two political protests by religious soldiers in uniform have turned a spotlight on the divided loyalties of many yeshivah students who also serve in the IDF.
Last Sunday, a group of soldiers in the Nahshon infantry battalion hoisted a banner on top of a building on their base in the southern region of the West Bank, reading, “Nahshon also doesn’t banish Jews.”
The banner was referring to the security forces’ razing of two houses, illegally built on the nearby Negohot settler outpost. The text played on a similar banner raised by soldiers in the Shimshon infantry battalion at a swearing-in ceremony last month, which read, “Shimshon does not evict in Homesh”.
Another similar banner was found at the training base of the Kfir brigade, to which both battalions belong.
In both cases, the soldiers involved in putting up the banners were tried in a military court and sentenced to a month in prison. They were also disqualified from serving in combat units or as commanders.
The IDF high command responded by saying that there would be no tolerance of political activity within the army and of calls to refuse orders. However, these cases are far from isolated.
The soldiers’ actions were carried out in co-operation with right-wing settler groups, which positioned photographers in advance and distributed the pictures to the media.
This is now their preferred tactic against the evictions and demolitions at the outposts, to prove that any move against the settlers will cause widespread disobedience in the IDF.
The soldiers were students of two yeshivahs situated in settlements, and their rabbis gave them backing.
Rabbis Eliezer Melamed and Elyakim Levanon both said that while they had not told their soldiers to carry out the protests, the army had no business evicting Jews and the soldiers were right to object.
These yeshivahs belong to the Hesder organisation, which has a longstanding arrangement with the army that allows their students to combine Torah studies with military service.
The involvement of Hesder rabbis and students in these acts of insubordination has caused senior officers to call upon the defence ministry and the IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, to cancel the Hesder arrangement.
“The very idea that we induct into the army soldiers whose rabbis are giving them orders which run counter to those of their commanders is preposterous,” said one officer.
But the IDF is reluctant to take on an organisation of 62 yeshivahs which contributes over 1,000 highly motivated soldiers a year. The great majority of the hesder soldiers serve in combat units and the heads of the Hesder Association published a statement distancing themselves from the protests.
Rabbi David Stav, the Hesder spokesman, said he personally “disagrees totally with the rabbis backing them”, but warned of a “disproportionate reaction which only create martyrs and multiply the numbers of those supporting disobedience within the army”.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office said that “while the minister is adamant in his efforts to combat disobedience, he has no plans to act against specific yeshivahs and believes that the disciplinary measures taken by the IDF commanders are sufficient”.