Tensions run high at Knesset during debate on length of hesder service

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah calls program ‘escape route’ to shorter conscription; Rabbi Haim Druckman: Maintain current balance.

uri orbach 370 (photo credit: Knesset)
uri orbach 370
(photo credit: Knesset)
Tempers frayed Tuesday morning during a highly charged debate on the length of army service performed by national-religious men in the hesder framework.
The hesder army course combines three-and-a-half years of yeshiva study with 16 months of army service and is considered a successful program, with approximately 85 percent of hesder recruits serving in combat roles in the IDF and large numbers going on to serve as officers.
Questions have been raised, however, within the framework of the legislative process for drafting haredim into the army, about the short length of service performed by hesder recruits relative to ordinary IDF soldiers, who serve 36 months.
The Special Committee for Haredi Enlistment on Tuesday heard specific proposals made by the Peri Committee for lengthening hesder service by one month. The suggestion has aroused considerable opposition from national-religious leaders, however, which was expressed during Tuesday’s hearing.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the leading figures of the national-religious community and who was invited to speak to the committee, said lengthening hesder service would damage the required balance for yeshiva students between their studies and military service, and said that it was “critical to preserve the current balance in order to fulfill the purpose” of the hesder program.
Bayit Yehudi MK Uri Orbach also voiced opposition to the proposal, arguing that any attempt to change the hesder program would damage an effective factory for the production of quality recruits.
“The contribution of hesder yeshivot goes much beyond the specific contributions of that which is correct and and good for the IDF,” said Orbach.
“Harm to this factory could cause some of those for whom hesder is a fitting program to think about not enlisting to combat service, which would also damage the IDF reserves in the future.”
But Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah criticized the program and the arguments used to defend the short period of service.
“If I were a graduate of a hesder yeshiva, I would be very embarrassed by the rhetoric that has been brought up in the debate by the national-religious rabbis,” Shelah said, saying that he had heard senior officers who said they would prefer not to take hesder recruits since divisions can be created in companies between them and soldiers having to serve the full three years.
“We are basically creating a way, through hesder yeshivot, a track that is essentially an escape route for someone who isn’t interested in serving three years,” said Shelah.
Hatnua MK Elazar Stern also spoke vociferously in favor of lengthening hesder IDF service.
He said he viewed the program favorably but that the hesder course could damage the principles of democracy in Israel in its current format, noting that IDF service of hesder recruits was considerably shorter than that of regular soldiers.
Stern, who comes from the national-religious community himself, questioned the commitment of hesder students to their studies, saying “there aren’t even 1,000 yeshiva students who can sit and learn fully.”
IDF representative Brig.- Gen. Gadi Agmon said that the IDF believed hesder IDF service should be extended to 24 months and added that a one-month extension would not be helpful since the army recruits in four-month increments.
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who attended the hearing, said he would express only thanks for the hesder yeshivot.
“There has been criticism for years about the disconnect between Torah and the state,” he said. “Support for hesder yeshivot has been a source of growth and connection between Torah and the state and Torah and Zionism.
“So today we have a generation of yeshiva high-schools whose rabbis grew up in the hesder yeshivas and support IDF enlistment, and then we come to this committee and they’re being put on a stake.
“I will say thank you to those rabbis who go out to work in the field [of education]. Thank you to those combat soldiers over the decades, including those [who fought] in the Second Lebanon War who I fought alongside – and I saw a lot of yeshiva students.
“The question is simple: Is the study of Torah a national value for the existence of the State of Israel? We have existed for 2,000 years because of Torah study.”
Committee chairwoman Ayelet Shaked of Bayit Yehudi also expressed opposition to lengthening hesder service, saying that there was no equality between the service of a soldier serving in a combat unit and another soldier “who gets to go home every day.”
“Practically speaking, despite the current arrangement with hesder yeshivot for 16 months service, in actuality hesder students serve for approximately 24 months, some of whom are also placed in command positions.”