Hesder heads, IDF Manpower's Stern clash again

Rabbis accuse Stern of blocking religious soldiers from Golani, Paratroopers brigades.

Elazar Stern 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Elazar Stern 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hesder yeshiva heads will face off with IDF OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern next week in a special Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting over the religious needs of hesder soldiers. On April 1, Stern is scheduled to appear before the Knesset committee together with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to explain his policy of forcibly integrating yeshiva students in "mixed" secular-religious platoons. Many yeshiva heads prefer to send their students to segregated platoons where all soldiers adhere to an Orthodox lifestyle and share the same sensitivities to religious observance. In the March induction, designated for combat soldiers, Stern demanded that the hesder yeshivot, which combine about three and a half years of traditional Jewish studies with a year and a half of army service, provide enough students to fill at least seven "mixed" platoons. But the yeshivot claimed on Sunday that they had managed to produce only enough soldiers for five platoons. A platoon is made up of approximately 25 soldiers. As a result of the yeshivot's inability to fill the quota, Stern decided to prevent two platoons of hesder soldiers from joining the Golani and Paratroopers brigades. The IDF denied the accusation that it was preventing hesder students from serving in either the Golani or Paratroopers brigades. A senior officer in the Human Resources Department said the IDF's ultimate goal was for all yeshiva students to enlist in mixed platoons. In the upcoming draft, there are 16 hesder platoons, seven of which were supposed to be mixed. "This is an impressive increase and we hope that it will continue this way," the officer said. "Our belief at the end of the day is that all of the platoons need to be mixed." Officials from the Human Resources Department said they had met four times with hesder yeshiva heads and reached an agreement on seven mixed platoons. After the last meeting, held in January, the IDF wrote a draft of the agreement and sent it to both sides. According to the terms, two of the mixed platoons would go to the Golani Brigade, two to the Armored Corps, one to the Givati Brigade, one to the Kfir Brigade and one to the Paratroopers. "Our arrangement was that there would be seven mixed platoons," an IDF source said. "We will show up on Tuesday expecting that this will be the case." This is not the first time that the yeshiva heads have accused Stern of blocking entry into the Golani and Paratrooper brigades to hesder yeshiva students. The tension between Stern and the hesder yeshivot began in the months leading up to the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Several hesder yeshiva heads called on their student-soldiers to refuse orders if they were told to aid in the expulsion of Jewish families from the Gaza Strip or northern Samaria. Stern, himself a religious Zionist who received the same high-school education as the soldier-students, feared that ideologically homogeneous companies of soldiers willing to commit insubordination in the event of the IDF-aided evacuation of Jewish settlements were potentially dangerous. The vast majority of religious soldiers followed orders. MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party), who requested the urgent meeting of the Knesset committee, said Stern's policy of coercion was counterproductive. "I appreciate the IDF's campaign against draft dodging," he said Sunday. "But by using coercion to force yeshiva students to join mixed companies, Stern will scare away many potential soldiers who are religious. These young men will say to themselves, 'If this is the way the IDF disregards religious needs, we don't want anything to do with it.'" Rabbi Re'em Hacohen, head of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva near Hebron, called Stern's insistence on a quota of mixed companies "childish." "Stern doesn't seem to understand that coercion does not work," he said. Hacohen, who personally favors integrating religious soldiers with their secular comrades, said, "The IDF should respect the needs of those students and yeshiva heads who want a segregated environment in the army. After all, this is a group of highly motivated guys who want to contribute, who are willing to fight for the state."