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Hesder yeshivot are on a collision course with the IDF that could spell the end for religious Zionism's unique contribution to the military.
Leading yeshiva heads will meet in Karnei Shomron on Wednesday to decide how to fight IDF plans to revamp the "hesder" or "arrangement" between religious Zionist yeshivot and the IDF.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern 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.
"To make an impact on the social atmosphere in the IDF, we have to have a critical mass," he said.
But senior officers rejected the accusations and told The Jerusalem Post that, despite the rabbis' claims, Stern and the IDF were actually in favor of retaining the hesder program.
The claim that Stern believes hesder students were a subversive element in the army was baseless, they said, and was part of a "political game" played by the heads of the yeshivot.
"The hesder program is important and needs to be retained and improved," one high-ranking officer said. "There are, however, certain changes that need to be made for the program to keep going."
He said he believed the reforms, including the integration of hesder students in religious and secular companies, would in the end "save the hesder program from itself."
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.
A majority of the leading hesder yeshiva heads, he said, supported the integration of religious soldiers in secular companies and realized that it was a move that could save the program.
"The minority is what is hurting us," he said. "It is made up of those who don't really learn and for whom hesder doesn't suit. They are the minority, but it is a minority that is worth several companies and battalions."
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.
All hesder rabbis, whether for or against integration, oppose IDF coercion.
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.
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%."
However, Stav said the demise of hesder would also be a tragedy for religious Zionists. "What separates us from the haredim is precisely things like hesder," he said.