Rabbis, IDF clash over segregation

Hesder troops to be barred from Golani, paratroopers after row with general.

hesder soldier 88 (photo credit: )
hesder soldier 88
(photo credit: )
Hesder soldiers will stop serving in Golani and paratrooper brigades after religious Zionist yeshiva heads clashed with an IDF general over the right to keep their soldier-students in segregated, religious-only platoons. Hesder soldiers, who combine an abridged military service - 18 months instead of three years - with Torah studies, will also be prevented from applying for elite IDF units unless they leave hesder. The decision to block hesder soldiers from Golani and paratrooper units comes after a clash between IDF Human Resources Head Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern and hesder rabbis. Rabbis refused to acquiesce to Stern's demand that hesder soldiers supply participants for a minimum of three "integrated" Golani and paratrooper platoons. These platoons would ensure an equal number of religious and secular soldiers. The rabbis and the hesder soldiers nevertheless demanded the freedom to keep the platoons segregated and manned solely by religious hesder soldiers. A platoon consists of about 35 soldiers. The rabbis and MK Uri Ariel (NU-NRP) wrote a letter to IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Askenazi demanding a reversal of Stern's decision. Col. Ziki Sela, head of planning and research in IDF Human Resources, told The Jerusalem Post in response that integrating hesder soldiers with their secular peers improved military capability on the battalion level. "Secular soldiers see the segregated platoons getting preferential treatment and it causes resentment," said Sela. "I've heard soldiers say, 'Those hesder soldiers serve less than half the time we do, they get extra time for prayers, it is not fair.' And this resentment makes it more difficult for the battalion to fight together in operational situations. But if you integrate the hesder soldiers with the secular guys on the platoon level they get to know each other, they train together, they see that everyone is working hard and they fight better together." Sela also said that closing Golani and paratrooper brigades to the hesder soldiers had nothing to do with the fight over segregation. "The IDF has less need for hesder soldiers as Golani fighters and paratroopers," said Sela. "We were willing to continue to recruit them on condition that they supply us with enough soldiers who were willing to create four mixed platoons. They failed to do so." In two separate inductions - a big one in March and a smaller one in August - a total of 1,200 hesder soldiers are recruited every year. Three-quarters are accepted to combat units. Hesder soldiers are known in the IDF for their high motivation and their complete ideological identification with the use of force to defend Israel. A hesder yeshiva source explained that his soldiers felt more comfortable and fought better in segregated platoons. He said that the segregation facilitated a smoother transition into the army from the very religious, protected environment that the hesder soldiers are used to. Last week Stern sent a letter to Eitan Ozeri, administrative head of the hesder yeshiva network, which includes 45 yeshivot, notifying him of the change. Stern explained that since the yeshiva heads did not provide enough soldiers willing to serve in mixed platoons with secular soldiers, he would stop the induction of hesder soldiers to Golani and paratrooper units. Instead, hesder soldiers will be directed to other IDF units such as tank and engineer brigades. However, a hesder source told the Post that several Golani and paratrooper commanders have complained about the change. "Commanders want hesder platoons because they are highly motivated and really good soldiers," said the source. He said that keeping the platoons segregated enhanced these good qualities. Rabbi David Stav, spokesman for the hesder yeshivot, attacked Stern's decision. "Just days after the Winograd Report revealed serious functional problems in the IDF, Stern is trying to change an arrangement that has worked successfully for decades," said Stav, who called Stern's opposition to segregation "ideological." An IDF source quoted by Ynet seemed to back up Stav's claim that Stern was ideologically opposed to segregation. "If they are willing to serve in mixed units we will open the Golani and paratrooper divisions to hesder," said a source in IDF human resources. "There's a lot of importance to integrating religious and secular soldiers, and we must remember that this is a people's army and a melting pot for Israeli society - everyone should work together and there is no reason to have homogenous units." Sources acquainted with Stern said that he has always opposed the segregation of religious Zionist soldiers from their secular peers. However, in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza and North Samaria, during which large numbers of hesder soldiers and their rabbis threatened to refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlements, Stern began pushing more aggressively for full integration of hesder soldiers. Stern sees integration as a means of "watering down" the ideological intensity of the hesder cliques in the IDF. But disengagement also made many hesder soldiers rethink their loyalty to the IDF. The order to evacuate Jewish settlements is seen by many as the ideological bankruptcy of secular Zionism. In fact, Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo was appointed after disengagement to investigate ways of reconciliation between the IDF and religious Zionist soldiers. Stern's decision to close the popular Golani and paratrooper brigades to hesder soldiers might exacerbate an already strained relationship.