The tape recorders were turned off, notebooks were put away and goodbyes were being said when, suddenly, at the end of an extensive two-hour interview with The Jerusalem Post, OC Manpower, Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, insisted on relating one more story.
"I was attending a funeral for a soldier who had been exhumed from Gaza and was being re-interred. Someone yelled at me to leave. A rabbi refused to shake my hand. I ignored them. I bent down to place a stone on the soldier's grave. As I did so the bereaved father kneeled and kissed my hand as it rested on his son's new grave," said Stern.
"I am telling you this story because as far as I am concerned if this father thinks I am OK then I could not care less about the rest. This father went through hell. He was forced to rebury his son while his house was being destroyed.
"I think this story speaks for itself."
Stern has kindled the ire of many right-wing, predominantly religious, Jews for his active role in implementing disengagement and punishing insubordination among religious soldiers. But more than anything Stern has been condemned by religious Zionists for his intention to revamp hesder yeshivot.
On Friday, October 14 at sundown, about 100 Orthodox Jews accosted Stern and his family who were on their way to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest Jewish site in the world. The assailants threw rocks and epithets.
Now, in the aftermath of this attack, although the interview had seemed to be wrapping up, Stern clearly had more to say.
When asked if this last anecdote about the grieving father was Stern's attempt to show he was justified for supporting disengagement, he said, "I'm glad you asked me that. No. I don't have to justify myself with anyone. I am very much in the right place."
Asked who tried to attack him at the Western Wall, Stern replied: "I heard a lot of English that night.
"I am sure Americans do not understand a lot of things. They do not truly understand Israeli society. What reaches them is primarily headlines without much depth. They say things like, 'Stern wants to close the hesder.' Ask any rabbi. No one ever heard me say such a thing. I came [to the Western Wall] with Americans. They were dumbfounded that fellow Americans have the gall to chase a soldier away from the [Western Wall]. It was sad for me. But Americans also helped protect me."
It was after this incident that Elazar initiated the interview with the Post, in an attempt to reach out to English speakers.
"Sometimes I am too optimistic," says Stern, expressing his thoughts on the Friday night incident. "But I think it will force people to think twice about extreme behavior. It will wake people up.
"My daughter cried. So did my son. For them it was a very traumatic experience. But I believe that only good can come of the incident. People do not understand that when they are silent when confronted with outbreaks of extremism, or when they support it, things get out of hand.
"In other words, if people stop counting religious soldiers who took part in the disengagement in a quorum for prayers, and if officers are attacked in a synagogue in Kedumim for taking part in disengagement, the logical result is an incident like the one that took place at the [Western Wall]. Hopefully, after what happened [there], people with think twice about the situation."
When the tape recorders were first rolling, Stern was ready to talk about the future of the Hesder program, punishment for soldiers who were insubordinate during disengagement, the alienation of religious Zionists in Israel, and his mission as a general and a religious Jew.
The Jerusalem Post: What are your plans for Hesder?
Stern: I think hesder yeshivot are important to the Jewish people. Opponents of hesder ask me how I can justify allowing a 50 percent reduction in army service from three years to just 18 months.
I tell them that the IDF provides special breaks for outstanding musicians to ensure the future of Israeli music. The IDF arranges special programs for athletes in order to ensure the future of Israeli sport. I also want IDF arrangements for yeshiva students to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
But athletes and musicians serve three years while hesder yeshiva students serve only half that time.
Hesder soldiers serve in combat units while musicians and athletes don't.
There are 1,200 hesder students every year or a total of more than 5,000, while there are just a few musicians and athletes.
You are right. There are too many hesder students. In the past few years there has been a 20% rise the number of hesder students. This is inexplicable. It is not as though the Jewish people suddenly want to learn more Torah. These are people who come to the yeshiva even though they have no intention of becoming serious lifetime students of the Torah.
Therefore, I suggest doing something like this: If heads of hesder yeshivot want to sign up 1,200 a year - fine. We can postpone enlistment for a year or two. But after a year or two instead of 85% coming back to the yeshiva after 18 months of service, let only 65% come back. Heads of yeshivot will decide who.
Also, hesder yeshivot should stop tackling societal problems. Many yeshivot sign up young men who otherwise would not have enlisted in the army. As a result of the stay in the yeshivot they become good soldiers. I say to heads of the yeshivot: Gentlemen, stop. Nobody gave you the right to do that.
Making young men into better soldiers is not the role of hesder yeshivot. I plan to make a deal with the yeshiva in Chispin, in the Golan Heights, that the yeshiva will teach them Torah, but also a vocation. I think it is more important to teach them a vocation than to simply turn them into better soldiers.
What about integrating hesder soldiers with secular soldiers?
I insist on breaking up the segregated companies and forcing hesder soldiers to serve with secular soldiers. Listen, there is a lot of talk among progressive rabbis about creating a dialogue between secular and religious. I am giving them an opportunity to do an entire year of secular-religious dialogue while serving together.
The Torah needs to be connected to real life. Do you think there is any interest in Jewish content if everyone is closed within his or her own little ghetto?
What about the problem of coed service for religious soldiers?
There is no problem with the separation of the sexes. The number of complaints about women in contact with hesder yeshiva boys is down to zero.
The problem simply does not exist. Besides, I don't think it is a religious issue. It is an issue of Israeli Jewish culture.
I'll give you an example. A company of soldiers wrote a dirty song about the female company secretary. Some hesder soldiers complained. First, I pointed out that it was a good thing that there were hesder soldiers who were there to complain. Second, writing a dirty song about a female soldier is a cultural, not a religious issue. We are not going to succeed in turning everyone in the IDF into religious Jews. But I do want to instill every soldier with pride in his or her Jewishness. I want every single soldier to be able to explain what it means to be Jewish.
Hesder soldiers who refused orders to evacuate Gush Katif or North Samaria will be thrown out of the hesder. Why?
They threw themselves out of hesder. They have to be truthful with themselves. They have an agreement with the army that they do less than half of regular service. But this is based on their loyalty to the IDF. We wanted to send out a message. The state gave you the right to reduce your service. You exploited this right or others exploited it, to fight against the IDF...
Any soldier guilty of insubordination is removed from combat units. This is true whether he is a right-wing objector or a left-wing objector. Whether he is a pilot or a tank commander. To be a combat soldier is a privilege.
How many are being punished?
In all there are less than 30 out of thousands who belong to the hesder.
What about hesder rabbis?
We singled out two rabbis. Rabbi [Elyakim] Levanon [of Elon Moreh] and Rabbi Dov Lior [of Kiryat Arba]. We targeted as few as possible. There were other rabbis that condoned insubordination. But we did not want to settle scores with all rabbis or annul all agreements. We wanted them to understand our message of zero tolerance for the preaching of insubordination.
The religious public needs to understand that the tribunal that judges the IDF's arrangement with the yeshivot is not you and me. I am not responsible to my rabbi or to my neighbor. I am responsible to the entire Jewish people in Israel. Israelis are watching from the side and asking, 'Hey wait a minute what are you guys doing? That soldier serves for just 18 months while my son serves three years. OK. That I am willing to accept. But he exploits it to leave my son alone during disengagement. There are limits. Where is the morality?'
In the wake of disengagement many young religious Zionists feel alienated from the state and its institutions, including the IDF. Do you detect a fall in motivation?
I agree that there are many more people that feel alienated from the IDF. Even if just 3% to 5% of those who enlist are affected, those who are affected have a disproportionate representation in combat units. But as the November enlistment gets closer I have not noticed a drop in motivation to join combat units.
It breaks my heart that there are young people who will have to work hard to return their previous [level of] loyalty to the state. It'll be difficult for them. But it will be a thousand times more difficult for those who choose to break away completely. For us at the IDF it will be difficult too. In the end I believe that this is not a group anyone wants to give up on.
But this is not at all costs. That has to be clear. It is a price we are willing to pay.
Do we really want to take sides with the IDF on one side and us on the other, or the state on one side and us on the other? Do we want to create ghettos? There are those who say yes. But the majority cleanse themselves of these thoughts slowly. I do not think that 100% of those who are disenchanted will return to themselves but most will.
Many young men who live in settlements in Judea and Samaria feel they are being rejected by enlistment officials for elite combat units. Is this true or are they just paranoid?
Listen, many reserve soldiers who served during disengagement are the ones who do the personnel checks. There is definitely an atmosphere of suspicion. Soldiers [from] the settlements are suspected of having dual loyalty. I hear complaints by settlers that there has been a drop in recruitments to elite units among residents of the Judea and Samaria. Recruitment officers are asking too many questions and accepting fewer settlers to the combat units.
It is not just a feeling. It is the reality.
Did disengagement help religious soldiers get their priorities straight?
I think it helped many religious soldiers to think deeper about whether the two realms [religion and state] can be reconciled. I think it can be... [although] we are always in that conflict. But there are things that you ask a rabbi and there are things that you simply do not ask a rabbi.
What do you think about the attack on religious Zionist rabbis who opposed insubordination such as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner?
It is their tragedy. Also ours but mostly theirs. There are religious Zionists that disparage respected rabbis. Men like Rabbi Moti Elon, head of Yeshivat Hakotel and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is a real Torah scholar, are dismissed by young people as if they are nothing.
I must tell you that Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a serious halachic authority no matter who you ask, called me. He promised me that all the curses directed at me in the past few months would turn into blessings.
The attack on these rabbis is a symptom of a simpleton's outlook on life. [Those who attacked] apparently are taught to ignore the complexities of life. God placed us in this world to make our own decisions based on how we deal with the complexities of life.
As a religious Jew do you have a mission in the IDF?
[Stern leans back and cups the back of his head with his two hands.] Wow what a question. No one ever asked me that before.
I think anyone who reaches a high rank in the IDF has a clear worldview. I also have a definite outlook on how I would like to see the IDF and, by extension, the State of Israel. I think it is legitimate to make a strong impact on my soldiers as long as I do not contradict the fundamental value expressed in the term "Jewish democratic state."
I take a lot from what I received at home. I use the term "home" in the broadest sense, which includes the educational institutions that produced me.
This does not mean that I want more religious people in the IDF. But I do want more soldiers who are proud of their Judaism. I think it makes them better soldiers.
In order to win in battle we have to know what we are fighting for.
Therefore, a soldier needs to be able to explain to me how he is Jewish. One soldier might say he is Jewish because he fasts on Yom Kippur. One might say he feels a connection to the land of Israel. The important thing is he knows how to define his Judaism.