Draft-dodging growing among nat'l religious

Hesder heads reject request to extend military service by eight months.

Calling on society to create lucrative benefits for IDF graduates, OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern on Wednesday slammed Israeli youth who dodge the draft, claiming that the phenomenon was spreading into new sectors in society, including the national religious camp. Noting that 26 percent of Israeli youth did not enlist in the IDF - most of them haredi - Stern said that there were growing numbers in the national religious camp who dodged the draft by, like the haredim, receiving exemptions on religious grounds. "When a leftist refuses to enlist we drag him to court," Stern said during a conference at Bar-Ilan University in memory of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Avraham Rotem, who passed away last year. "But when someone on the other side [right-wing/religious] does not enlist, nothing is done." Stern said that just because youth receive exemptions from the IDF "by law" did not mean that they were not "draft-dodgers." "There is no such thing that an entire neighborhood, an entire family or an entire community are all suited to sit and learn Torah," Stern said in reference to the exemptions haredim receive on grounds that their Torah studies are more important than military service. Stern said that the Nahal Haredi Battalion "pulled the rug out" from under the feet of the haredi, who claim they cannot lead an observant lifestyle while in the IDF. Stern said that the IDF's goal was to turn the single battalion of 600 combat soldiers into a complete brigade. "There are conditions in Nahal Haredi that they don't have even in Bnei Brak," Stern said. "They don't see girls for kilometers and we created conditions for this in the army. The society needs to recognize this and encourage more youth to join." During his speech, Stern criticized Israeli society for not appreciating those who serve in the IDF and creating benefits for them in return. He said that recently he had been informed that most of those accepted to study medicine at the Technion were Arabs. "At Harvard, they ask when you apply what you did for your country," Stern said. "Here, we canceled this and as a result we are missing dozens of doctors needed in the military." Stern also called on hesder yeshiva heads to extend the military service of their students from 16 months to two full years. Today, Hesder students spend 16 months in the military and another three years and eight months in yeshiva. Stern said that there were too many students in the hesder program. "It is important that they extend their service," he said. "There is also no way that the 1,200 students who join each year are suited for the program." The yeshiva heads rejected Stern's request to extend the service, arguing that the move would ruin the delicate balance between Torah study and military commitment. "We are trying to walk a narrow line," said Rabbi Re'em Hacohen, head of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva, located 20 kilometers south of Hebron. "On one hand, 100% of our physically fit students volunteer for combat units because they see army service as a mitzva. "But on the other hand, we are also trying to educate the next generation of Torah scholars, who will help provide our nation with spiritual guidance." Hacohen explained that long hours of study were absolutely essential to producing learned rabbis. "There is nothing in the world harder than becoming a serious Torah scholar and we are trying to produce them while also bearing the yoke of responsibility for protecting the state." Hacohen estimated that if the IDF forced hesder yeshivot to extend service, many would opt for an exemption from military service, like the haredim, under the "Torah is my vocation" clause. The "Torah is my vocation" clause was created with the establishment of the state of Israel as part of an agreement with David Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, a former spiritual leader of Israeli haredi Judaism. The number of haredi men exempted from army service because they devote themselves to Torah study has grown from about 400 in 1948 to 30,000 today. The haredi community, historically opposed to secular Zionism, sees military service as a potential spiritual booby trap in which young impressionable yeshiva students are exposed to negative influences. In contrast, religious Zionists are willing to brave these influences because they tend to see army service as a sacred duty. However, in the years since Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, an increasing number of religious Zionist youths have joined their haredi counterparts in postponing military service indefinitely. Rabbis and educators estimate that the rising numbers are a direct result of the government's decision to use the IDF to help evacuate settlers in Gaza and Northern Samaria from their homes. Hacohen added that the hesder yeshivot supported an initiative to encourage more of their students to become officers, even if those who became officers ended up shortening the time they spent learning Torah from three and a half years to just two. "We support sending more students to officer training courses because it only affects a portion of the students. As a result, the basic framework remains the same and those who go to officers' training can remain in contact with their friends who are still in yeshiva." Hacohen, 51, revealed that as a young man he was a hesder soldier who completed officers' training.