By TOVAH LAZAROFF, MATTHEW WAGNER
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's accusations against rabbis who support military insubordination are akin to a "blood libel" and are part of a deliberate campaign to incite the public against religious leaders, Har Bracha Yeshiva head Rabbi Eliezer Melamed charged on Monday night.
"The defense minister's accusations against our graduates and against me personally are blood libels which might promote him politically, but which are also destroying the army, national unity and the foundations of democracy," said Melamed, in a speech at a Bat Yam synagogue.
He was speaking the night after Barak had ousted his yeshiva from the hesder program, which numbers 40 institutions that combine military service and religious study. It's the first such occurrence in the program's 56-year history.
But Melamed on Monday said he stood by his position that soldiers have a right to refuse orders that conflict with the dictates of religious law in very specific situations, such as an order to evacuate a settlement.
He has always supported military service and has taught his students that it is an important religious commandment, he told his Bat Yam audience.
Still, he said, "I have become the focus of media attention and malicious actions by the defense minister."
It's been said that the soldier has a commander, and he isn't a rabbi, said Melamed.
He added that "the public has been incited to think that rabbis are endangering the existence of the army. It's not us, it's the security establishment that is involving the army in political matters that is endangering it."
"Religious law requires a soldier to follow his commander," he said, adding, "All the disagreements with the defense minister are on matters that are not connected to security activities, that are involving the army in political matters and involve pitting soldiers against their own."
He recounted how he supported participation in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and that 150 of his students served in the army at that time after he told them it was their religious obligation to do so.
His students at that time were conflicted, Melamed said. They did not know how they could serve in the army after the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and they were concerned about serving an army that would soon be involved in more territorial withdrawals.
Melamed said that "it was a mitzva to go out to war, even when some actions taken by the army were problematic. If there were no army, our situation would be worse."
But, Melamed clarified, he distinguishes between army service that involves fighting the enemy or saving a life, and orders that set soldiers against their own people or that needlessly ask soldiers to violate religious commandments such as kashrut or Shabbat.
Melamed stated that through the ages, rabbis were instructed to speak their minds.
"Can it be that in the democratic state of Israel, a rabbi cannot think and speak with honesty?" he asked.
Melamed's conflict with the army comes at a particularly tense time. Settlers have rallied throughout Judea and Samaria against the recently announced government policy to freeze new settlement construction for 10 months.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said during a visit to Yasuf village Monday that Barak's decision to cut off the Har Bracha yeshiva would "cause an escalation of the tension between the IDF and religious Zionism."
However, the chief rabbi also voiced opposition to insubordination. While in the army, "the IDF officer is the soldier's rabbi," said Metzger.
Still, Metzger said it was not right for officers to ask IDF soldiers to do something against their conscience.
The Chief Rabbinate's governing body is planning to convene to discuss Har Bracha, said sources close to the rabbinate, who added that the defense minister might be invited to the meeting.
Rabbi Avinoam Horowitz, head of the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva High School, said that he was concerned that Barak's decision would have an adverse effect on his students.
"We've had to work hard as educators to restore the trust that young people have in state institutions after what happened in Gush Katif and Amona," said Horowitz.
"What Barak has done will only deepen the feeling of alienation that religious-Zionist youths feel toward the IDF, the government and other state institutions. This is a blow to the youths, who feel they are being pushed into the corner. They are taking the worst blows and yet they continue to serve with strong loyalty to the State of Israel, more than any other sector of the society. The cruel thing is that there is a concerted attempt to force these idealistic youths to take part in the destruction of their dreams."
Meanwhile, hesder yeshiva heads said that they would not accept Barak's decision and would work to reverse it.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Or Etzion Hesder Yeshiva, voiced hope that the issue would be resolved.
"I believe that if the decision had not been made so quickly, an agreement could have been reached between the Defense Ministry and Rabbi Melamed."
Druckman pointed out that Melamed did not support political demonstrations in the IDF.
He said that a meeting slated for Sunday with the heads of the yeshivot would probably be moved up to later this week.
Melamed's viewpoints were supported by Rabbi Eliezer Waldman of Kiryat Arba, who said that "Today we are all Har Bracha."
Habayit Hayehudi chairman Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz has stated that he will ask Barak to reconsider his decision.
"The lack of communication between the defense minister and Rabbi Melamed could lead to disaster. The decision turns Rabbi Melamed into a martyr and actually works to the advantage of those who support the dangerous phenomena of insubordination," Herschkowitz said.
Also on Monday, Some 100 hesder yeshiva graduates sent a letter to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi threatening to refuse reserve duty if the army severs ties with the Har Bracha Yeshiva.
"If the IDF stops the arrangement with the yeshiva in Samaria we will not show up for our reserve duty," the graduates wrote in the letter. "We cannot be part of an army that rejects us."
Right-wing activists intend to visit hesder yeshivot and call on students there to drop out of the hesder arrangement. Their aim is completely stop the hesder yeshiva arrangement for a two-year period, "to show the IDF that it has more to lose from cutting off hesder yeshivot."
In Har Bracha, residents said they stood behind the rabbi, who they admired and who inspired many of them to come to the settlement.
Har Bracha was transformed from a Nahal base into a settlement in 1983, but only truly began to grow when the Har Bracha Yeshiva opened there in 1991.
The religious community, located in the Samaria region, outside the boundaries of the security barrier, is now home to at least 1,300 people.
Among them is Idan Marius, 33, who first came there as a student in 1995, and remained after he graduated in 2003.
For him, his life in the settlement, his service in the army and his continued reserve duty, all revolved around the religious understanding that he gained from Melamed, who he reveres.
It was Melamed, Marius said, who taught him that it was a mitzva to serve in the army and that by doing so he was also serving God.
When he was a student, it was before the notion of territorial withdrawal and the issue of insubordination was not raised, said Marius, who is now a father of four.
Melamed had said that a soldier could refuse orders to evacuate Jews already during the 2005 withdrawal, he said, so there is nothing new in his position.
"Nothing has changed except that Barak chose to bring it up now," said Marius.
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