Saving hesder

Two sets of reforms may change the army's hesder program for religious soldiers.

religious soldiers 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious soldiers 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The leaders of a number of prominent hesder yeshivot - institutions that combine Jewish learning and army service - met yesterday to discuss the IDF's reform proposals, some of which, they contend, could destroy the entire hesder system. The IDF, for its part, claims it is trying to improve the system, not eliminate it. Two sets of reforms are in the works, some directed at hesder specifically and others that are IDF-wide and affect the hesder program. The wider reform program, devised by the Ben-Bassat Committee, recommends equalizing army service across separate frameworks. According to this principle, army service would be gradually reduced to two years for non-combat soldiers, while the army service of hesder student-soldiers would be lengthened from 16 months to two years, out of a five-year program including yeshiva studies. Hesder proponents are concerned that equalizing service will greatly reduce the attractiveness of the program, which has grown substantially to 40 yeshivot that are teaching 1,200 student-soldiers. One reform proposed by the IDF is to limit the total number of students to 800, which might also help the yeshivot to become more selective and raise the quality of the educational experience. Another proposed reform that seems to be opposed more strongly by the students themselves than by the yeshiva heads is to reduce the concentration of hesder students within the army units. Now, hesder soldiers are supposed to comprise half of each company in which they serve. Addressing the future of hesder, of course, has become more urgent and problematic in the context of disengagement and the rift that has emerged between the national religious sector and the state. During the debate over disengagement, some hesder yeshiva heads not only opposed it, but either privately or publicly urged their students to refuse orders. The IDF vowed it would remove some yeshivot that were complicit in urging insubordination from the hesder system, but has not done so. Given this situation, the question is whether the premise of hesder, namely producing highly motivated, Jewishly educated soldiers who enrich the IDF and deepen the connection between religious Judaism and the state, can be salvaged. On the face of it, it would seem that such a connection is even more necessary than it was before disengagement. But can the hesder system still be the bridge it was designed to be, or has it become a wedge, indoctrinating its students in an ideology that is, at worst, hostile to the state and its army? In our view, the hesder experiment should not be abandoned, but it will take substantial effort both by the IDF and by the hesder yeshiva leaders to repair the damage and turn current trends around. What needs to be done depends less on the proposed reforms than on the attitudes of both sides. The IDF should appreciate that given hesder's potentially integrative role and the quality of soldiers it can produce, maintaining the program might take precedence over other goals, such as unifying and eliminating disparate frameworks. If there were no hesder, many of its students would go through regular army service, but many others would go in the other direction, toward utilizing exemptions for yeshiva students. The hesder yeshiva rabbis, for their part, should understand that their program will have no future if it, in some cases, conflicts head on with democratic values and military discipline. We see no reason why even yeshivot that have no connection to the IDF should inculcate an interpretation of Judaism that is in opposition to democracy or to a Jewish state that does not share its particular point of view. These yeshivot may have the right to take such a stance, but the rest of society has a right to distance and protect itself from such institutions. And the IDF has not merely the right, but the responsibility, to restrict its ties to those institutions that take a more mainstream Jewish view, namely that democratic decisions taken by a Jewish state to advance its survival and well-being can and should be supported on both democratic and Jewish grounds. Surely, the Jewish view that is consistent with democracy and Jewish unity - as opposed to refusing orders - should be given full and preferential airing, even if other Jewish views are also presented. The best result of a mutual effort to make an abiding success of the hesder system would be a program that brings young religious citizens closer to their army and their state, and that could play an important role in addressing existing rifts.