Of commandments, commands and conscientious objection

More religious-Zionist youth are delaying army service to devote themselves to Torah studies.

yeshiva study 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva study 88
(photo credit: )
It was telling that one of the IDF's most severe incidents of ideologically motivated insubordination took place just 10 days before the second anniversary of the Gaza disengagement. The traumatic images of disengagement undoubtedly flashed in the minds of a group of predominately religious combat soldiers (one was secular) who stubbornly refused on Monday to provide backup support for border policemen and law enforcers tasked with evacuating two Jewish families who had taken up residence in Hebron's Arab market. In fact, one of the seven soldiers who were sentenced to 28-day prison sentences and will probably be removed from combat duty had himself been forcibly evacuated from Gush Katif. The soldier, a squadron commander and student at the Otniel hesder yeshiva, told his brigade commander that he was emotionally and morally unable to carry out the orders. He and the other soldiers were intransigent, although they were not to be directly involved in the evacuation of the families. Rather, they were asked to fill in for border police at a nearby checkpoint so they would be free to aid in the evacuation. Even after Rabbi Haim Druckman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva Yeshivot Association, managed to convince a group of other soldiers in the platoon, who had joined the rebellion at first, to get on the bus that was to take them to Hebron, these soldiers refused to budge. They also did not accept Druckman's advice to get on the bus but to temporarily "disappear" or feign sickness when it came time to carry out the mission, so as to avoid a direct confrontation which would undermine the IDF's chain of command and create anarchy. Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, head of the Shadmot Mehola Yeshiva in the Jordan Valley, came to the Beka'ot army base to speak with the soldiers. He told them the IDF had promised not to send them to take part in the evacuation. But the seven refused to get on the bus. By this time the incident had become a family affair. Parents of the soldiers came to support their children's insubordination. They held signs reading: "My son does not expel Jews from their homes." They shouted into bullhorns: "My son was trained to fight terrorists, not his brothers and sisters." After most of the soldiers got on the bus, Tomer Rosenfeld, a brother of one of the soldiers, tried to block it with his body. After the bus departed, parents followed in their cars. As it passed Kiryat Arba, locals stopped it, causing an altercation with police. SINCE DISENGAGEMENT, a sea change has taken place in the religious-Zionist public's attitude toward military service. While many hesder rabbis and heads of pre-military academies continue to oppose insubordination - even when the IDF is deployed to dismantle settlements - many laypeople have adopted a more uncompromising, anti-establishment attitude when it comes to evacuating Jews from their homes. Judging from recruitment data provided by the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, many young men are opting for more religious, more hard-line pre-military frameworks. Yeshivot headed by rabbis who openly supported insubordination before and during disengagement have gained popularity among them. For instance, Eilon Moreh, probably the most popular hesder yeshiva, is headed by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who openly called for insubordination during disengagement. Having transplanted his yeshiva to Kfar Darom in the months prior to disengagement, Levanon barricaded himself and his students inside Kfar Darom's synagogue, the site of one of the most violent clashes between settlers and evacuation forces. For pedagogical reasons, Levanon only accepts about 30 students a year, but hundreds apply. As a result, Levanon decided to establish a sister yeshiva - Eshtemoa - in the southern Hebron Hills. The hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, headed by Rabbi Dov Lior, probably the most vocal supporter of insubordination during disengagement, has also grown tremendously. So has the hesder yeshiva in Bracha, near Nablus, headed by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, another pro-insubordination figure. Also, larger numbers of religious-Zionist youth are delaying army service for more than two years, devoting themselves instead to Torah studies. This is known as "torato omanuto" (Torah is his profession) - popular among haredim - which exempts men from army service as long as they study Torah full-time. Whereas previously one-third of hesder yeshiva students chose to delay army service, and two-thirds followed the regular track of the five-year program combining 18 months of service with more than three years of Torah studies, today those numbers are reversed. Of an annual class of about 1,200 hesder soldiers, more than 800 have opted for torato omanuto. In addition, there are another 500 students a year enlisted in about 10 religious-Zionist "Higher Yeshivot," such as Mercaz Harav, Har Hamor, Shavei Hebron, Yeshivat Tel Aviv, Kedumim and Beit El, which do not offer hesder; students enlist in the army after spending several years in yeshiva. Many of these yeshivot are headed by rabbis who supported insubordination; most prominent among them Mercaz Harav and Beit El. The increased demand to postpone military service was one of the causes of this year's jump in the number of draft dodgers to a quarter of the total number of soldiers born in 1989. In parallel, there has been a fall in the popularity of premilitary academies. In general, the heads of these institutions, men like Rabbi Eli Sadan from Eli or Rabbi Rafi Peretz, whose academy was evacuated from Atzmona, took a more moderate stance during disengagement and opposed insubordination. Scenes of Peretz and his students tearfully hugging and dancing with police and soldiers who had come to evacuate them became the symbol of this pro-establishment approach within religious Zionism. Although they agreed that it was wrong to use the IDF to evacuate Jews and that the army should be used solely to fight enemies, these rabbis nevertheless argued that mass refusals would destroy the IDF. For the sake of unity, they said, orders must be followed. True, every attempt must be made to avoid being involved in the actual expulsion either by asking to be excused or by halfheartedly following orders - tactics that became known as "grey refusal" - but in the end, if there were no other option, discipline would have to be maintained. But these rabbis' nuanced message smacked of spinelessness and an ideological cop-out in the eyes of many religious-Zionist youth. The dominant feeling among them, especially following disengagement when it became clear the government had not prepared housing, employment or socioeconomic solutions for the evacuees, was that the religious-Zionist public had been duped. And the message put forth by the moderate rabbis was deemed to have aided and abetted this. Youth were no longer interested in compromising their ideals; there were limits to how much could be sacrificed for the sake of unity. With the perceived ideologically bankruptcy of secular Zionism, religious Zionism should now take over and set the tone for the nation. This explains the loss of favor of the premilitary academies. At the height of their popularity, these academies, which have produced some of the IDF's best officers and elite troops, attracted about 900 students a year. But last year enrollment fell to 700. Rabbis such as David Stav, head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, admit that the potential for mass insubordination among religious soldiers is much greater than in the past. The IDF is aware of this danger. That is why this week's incident was dealt with so severely. It was used as a case study in uncompromising opposition to any sort of insubordination, even when the unruly soldier, as a Gaza evacuee, has potent personal reasons for refusing orders.