Religious Diaspora groups defend IDF's hesder program

Joint letter slams Stern for excluding hesder soldiers from Golani and Paratrooper brigades.

idf reservists 88 (photo credit: )
idf reservists 88
(photo credit: )
Prominent religious Zionist organizations in the Diaspora have criticized OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern's decision to prevent hesder soldiers from serving in the Golani and Paratrooper brigades. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues, World Mizrahi, the National Council of Young Israel and the Religious Zionists of America recently wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to express their concern. "We, representing the National Religious communities worldwide, are deeply disturbed and incensed at the manner in which hesder yeshivot and their roshei yeshiva and students are being offended and treated by the head of human resources of the IDF, Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern," representatives of the organizations said in a letter. "To exclude hesder soldiers from the two elite units, Golani and Paratroopers, is a self-defeating exercise. Why not let highly motivated and talented soldiers contribute to the maximum of their abilities?" The letter was also signed by religious Zionist leaders from South Africa, Canada, Holland, Austria, Mexico, Uruguay, France, the UK, Brazil, Australia and Argentina. They called on Olmert, Peretz and Ashkenazi to overrule Stern's decision. The five-year hesder (arrangement) program allows religious soldiers to combine yeshiva studies with 18 months of military service, instead of the mandatory three years. Approximately 1,200 hesder soldiers serve in the IDF annually, most of them in combat units. Stern closed the Golani and Paratrooper brigades to hesder soldiers for the upcoming August induction. His decision came after hesder yeshivot demonstrated a reluctance to send soldiers to predominantly non-religious platoons. Yeshiva heads are concerned that secular soldiers will have an adverse spiritual influence on their students. Two weeks ago, Ashkenazi backed Stern's decision to exclude hesder soldiers from the Golani and Paratrooper brigades. They will be allowed to enlist in other brigades, including the Tank Corps and Engineering Corps. A high-ranking Human Resources officer said the organizations were meddling in military affairs and recommended that the Union of Orthodox Synagogues stick to kashrut issues. "It is sad that these organizations get involved with what goes on inside the IDF," the officer told The Jerusalem Post. "Instead of complaining, they should look at the work being done in the IDF to instill Jewish values and tradition in all of the soldiers." World Mizrahi director-general Solly Sacks said the Diaspora organizations had no qualms about intervening in Israel's domestic affairs on behalf of hesder soldiers. Religious communities in the Diaspora provided financial support to their yeshivot, he said. Sacks said he and other members of World Mizrahi had tried to convince Stern to change his mind six months ago. Stern sent a letter sent to 5,000 hesder students and soldiers last week explaining his decision. All soldiers, he wrote, were placed in units according to the IDF's needs. Stern said the IDF viewed the hesder program as an essential component of the military and a source of quality soldiers. But he said its numbers had grown by 20 percent in recent years, indicating that it was being taken advantage of. Stern also responded to criticism of his decision to disband hesder platoons and send the soldiers to regular units. "My intention, and this has already been accomplished in a number of units, is not to disperse but to integrate the hesder soldiers," Stern wrote. "I think that shared service encourages dialogue and maintains a more Jewish and Israeli atmosphere, and one that is stronger and more united."