Religious Zionists are confronted by an unenviable challenge which could permanently undermine their status in Israel. From being regarded by the mainstream as the voice of religious moderation and a force of societal unification - whose youth have earned the reputation as role models of devotion and dedication to the state and its defense - they are now teetering on marginalization at best, and stigmatized as zealots at worst.
The current impasse was an inevitable consequence of edicts issued by a number of rabbis proclaiming that forfeiture of territory in the Land of Israel constitutes a breach of Halacha. These rabbis refused to consider any exceptions to this decree - not even for pikuah nefesh, the requirement to safeguard human life, which overrides most halachic injunctions.
Nor were they willing to respect the authority of the majority of their rabbinical colleagues, who disagreed with their interpretation of Jewish law and also recognized the potential societal polarization it would create.
Indeed, such polarization came strongly to the fore in 2005, when former prime minister Ariel Sharon used IDF combat troops to implement the disengagement from Gaza. Among these were religious soldiers, many from settler families. That they were obliged to forcibly evacuate settlements naturally evoked bitterness and resentment. These emotions were subsequently compounded when it turned out that the whole endeavor only served to embolden the jihadists, who transformed the evacuated areas into missile-launching sites from which to attack Israeli civilians.
Now, a mere four years later, the settlement freeze has caused settlers to become apprehensive that another displacement is pending. It was in this context that small groups of hesder soldiers from the Shimshon and Nahshon battalions unfurled banners during military ceremonies proclaiming that they would never again take part in IDF evacuations of settlements.
They were jailed for insubordination.
Whereas most hesder rabbis and religious-Zionist spokesmen condemned or distanced themselves from these actions, a number of rabbis, headed by a rather unworldly Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha Yeshiva, not only endorsed their actions but told students they would be breaching Halacha if they were to obey orders to evacuate settlements.
This led to hysterical media accusations against the entire hesder movement, and accusations that rabbis were taking over the IDF. Rabbis were even blamed for creating the climate for the recent desecration of the mosque in Yasuf, despite the fact that they were at the forefront of the nation's condemnation of that despicable vandalism.
In an attempt to stave off confrontation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave Rabbi Melamed every opportunity to backtrack with dignity. But Melamed rebuffed Barak's request for a meeting with undue arrogance, retorting: "I don't work for the defense minister." Fearing negative repercussions on army morale if he failed to act, Barak took the unprecedented step of severing the IDF relationship with Melamed's yeshiva. His response was to accuse Barak of "blood libeling." Regrettably, initially most hesder rabbis - including moderates - were reluctantly dragged into supporting Melamed. And more than 100 hesder yeshiva graduates announced that unless the army rescinded its decision to cut off the Har Bracha Yeshiva, they would refuse orders when called up for reserve duty. Now, belatedly, the rabbis have succeeded in pressuring Rabbi Melamed to withdraw his call on soldiers to disobey orders, but the damage has been done.
IN THE past, religious Zionists accepted the rulings of their rabbis on halachic questions, but refused to take instructions from them on social and political matters. This approach is now being challenged by an increasing number of rabbis, particularly in the hesder yeshivot.
However, the current debate is not as black and white as protagonists from both sides claim. Even IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has repeatedly affirmed that a conscripted army like the IDF, which is continuously engaged in wars and other violent confrontations with deadly terrorists, should not be used by the state as a vehicle for evacuating civilians from their homes.
In most countries such activities are clear-cut civil issues and it is the police or other state-controlled entity that are tasked with implementing such policies. That may be difficult or even impossible in Israel. But there is surely a lack of compassion in forcing soldiers who hail from settlements to forcibly evacuate neighbors, friends and even their own family members from homes which the state not only sanctioned but promoted until the moment that a political decision was made to unilaterally withdraw from them and hand them over to the Palestinians.
Furthermore, religious soldiers are not the first group of inappropriately named "refuseniks" to emerge from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor are their rabbis the first figures of moral and intellectual authority to call upon their "flocks" to disobey orders. Take, for example, the hundred or so university professors who exhorted their students to refuse to serve in the "army of the occupation." Even though rabbis undoubtedly carry greater weight with their students than professors, the double standard here is unmistakable. While no action was taken against universities for failing to take disciplinary action against such academics, Rabbi Melamed - who consistently remained adamant that his students serve in the IDF - was penalized for telling them to refuse to evacuate settlements.
This is not to suggest that there is room for sectarian militias in an army, certainly not in the IDF. In the absence of utter discipline, the military would be dysfunctional, to say the least, and the country endangered. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, "If you want to close down the IDF, then promote refusal to obey orders, which could lead to the collapse of the state."
Religious Zionists - whose children, including those in hesder institutions, have volunteered for combat units in numbers greatly disproportionate to their population - understand this all too well. This was evident by their reluctance, in spite of great anguish, to defy orders during disengagement. It is still evident today. The fact is that the vast majority of religious Zionists are pained and infuriated by the recent behavior of Melamed and other rabbis - behavior which has jeopardized their highly sensitive relationship with the state carefully nurtured over the years.
The onus to correct this rests on the religious-Zionist community as a whole. It is urgent for them to put their house in order.
This does not deny them their democratic right to oppose such actions. But they should do so by fighting the battle in the civil-political arena where it belongs. With this right, however, comes responsibility - that of publicly denouncing anyone, rabbis included, who encourages soldiers to espouse insubordination which could lead to chaos within the IDF.
This will require courage and determination, particularly by moderate religious-Zionist laymen. These represent the vast majority of religious Zionists whose commitment to the state is unconditional, but have hitherto lacked the backbone to resist, condemn and ostracize the extremists. They must do so now, before this hesder-IDF imbroglio spins out of control, endangering the entire religious-Zionist enterprise. This would represent a great loss not only for the IDF, but for the entire nation.