Hesder yeshiva heads vowed Wednesday to oppose a request by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to extend their students' military service from 16 months to two years.
The hesder yeshiva heads said that the move would ruin their educational goal of producing the next generation of rabbinic, spiritual leadership.
"We are trying to maintain a delicate balance between the sword and the book," said a high-ranking hesder yeshiva official. "Extending army service would mean that producing better soldiers would come at the expense of educating the next generation of rabbis."
Standard mandatory army service for 18-year-old males is three years. However, for over 50 years religious Zionist yeshivot have had an arrangement [hesder] with the IDF which permits Torah students to shorten their military service to 16 months as part of a five-year program that combines army duty with learning of classic Jewish texts. Rabbi David Stav, spokesman for the hesder yeshivot said that one yeshiva head, who is normally moderate, likened the request to religious persecution [gzerat shmad].
"The rabbi vowed that if military service were lengthened he would personally travel from yeshiva to yeshiva convincing students to dodge the draft.
"There is no way we could acquiesce to such a demand. It would rip us apart; it would mean the end of the hesder program," added Stav.
On Tuesday night Ashkenazi met with heads of the Hesder yeshivot program at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss a number of topics, including insubordination among religious soldiers and religious attitudes about co-ed service.
During the two-hour meeting. Ashkenazi also asked the yeshiva heads to consider extending their students' military service. The chief of General Staff said that presently, in the wake of the recent rise in draft dodging, there was a real need for more quality, highly motivated soldiers.
Ashkenazi, who praised religious soldiers' strong ideological identification with the IDF, told of how his own son, an officer in Egoz, an elite combat unit with a high percentage of religious soldiers, had very positive contact with his religious peers.
IDF officers who attended the meeting said that an additional eight months of service by hesder students would be a major boost for the IDF, particularly at a time when enlistment numbers were dropping.
"These are high quality and highly-motivated soldiers who can significantly contribute during their military service," one officer explained.
"Increasing the service from 16 months to 24 months would make a huge difference."
The officer pointed out that only after about 10 months of intensive military training do the hesder soldiers even begin to perform real combat operations. With total service only 16 months, that leaves just a half a year for real military service.
Ashkenazi also discussed with the yeshiva heads the integration of hesder soldiers with secular soldiers in "mixed" platoons. Presently, many hesder soldiers request to serve in segregated platoons so as to protect themselves from what they consider to be the negative spiritual influences of secular culture.
IDF Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, who was also present at Tuesday's meeting, is the mastermind behind the integration move, which has been a source of tension between the yeshiva heads and the IDF for over a year.
Stern's desire to dissolve the segregated platoons is in part a protective measure against the possibility of military insubordination among religious youth at times when the IDF is used as a police force that evacuates Jewish settlers.
Just last month a group of religious soldiers, some of them part of the hesder program, refused orders to help evacuate two Jewish families from Hebron's Arab market.
Since the Gaza disengagement two years ago, concern has grown that the IDF will be faced with mass insubordination among religious soldiers when the army is used as an evacuation force against Jewish settlers.
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