In an unprecedented move, Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday cut ties with one of the dozens of religious seminaries that feed students to the military amid concerns that its ideologically driven students might refuse orders to evacuate settlements.
The military was concerned that the chief rabbi of the school, known as a “hesder” yeshiva and located in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha, was educating students to become insubordinate soldiers.
Israel’s move highlights the military’s increasing unease about a clash of values involving soldiers who arrive in a secular army after being taught that holding on to the biblical land of Israel is a religious duty.
The break is another sign of a festering rift between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the religious nationalists who spearheaded the settler movement.
“The rabbis are saying the land of Israel is sanctified more than the orders you get to dismantle these settlements. And by the time they get to the army they are brainwashed,” says Yossi Alpher, an advisor to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who is now coeditor of online opinion journal Bitterlemons.org. “This can be seen as the first step toward a major break between the secular security ethos and the [religious nationalists].”
Pragmatism could solve contradiction between religion, modern state
In recent weeks and months the army has been confronted with a growing number of soldiers who have made political statements about refusing to evacuate outposts – a phenomenon which the military top brass consider an attempt to politicize Israel’s army.
In an effort to quash the movement, the army targeted the chief rabbi at Har Bracha’s “hesder” yeshiva, Eliezer Melamed. Rabbi Melamed has said in weekly newspaper columns and books that if a religious soldier is ever given an order to evacuate settlements, that soldier must not obey such a directive as an article of faith.
When Barak called Melamed in for a hearing to clarify his views, Melamed refused but responded on Monday in an article published on the settler website Arutz 7 that it is the “duty of a Rabbi to speak his internal truth.”
Both Rabbi Melamed and Barak are escalating the conflict, says Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, who heads a “hesder” yeshiva and lives in a West Bank settlement. He says the clash could be solved with pragmatism.
“There is sort of a contradiction between religion and a modern state because we are speaking about two sources of power,” says Sherlow. “The state’s power is from the nation and the religion’s power from the divine.”
'If you're a soldier and you get this order, you can't escape.'
Over the last generation or so, Orthodox religious soldiers have taken a growing role in the Israeli military’s combat corps thanks to a four-decade-old “hesder” – or “arrangement” – with dozens of seminaries that collaborate with the military to enable thousands of pupils yearly to split time between army service and religious studies.
That arrangement allowed Israel’s national religious community, which had been reluctant to send high school graduates to the military for fear of its secularizing influence, to keep their children in seminaries for longer. The military got a new source of recruits who proved to be eager soldiers.
The fear of a conflict emerged for the first time in the run-up to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some Orthodox religious nationalists called on soldiers to disobey orders. In the wake of that evacuation, many in the military – as well as observers from across the political spectrum – said that the influence of hard-line rabbis is overshadowing that of political leaders.
“What we found out [prior to the decision to cut ties with the Har Bracha yeshiva], is a group of soldiers coming from yeshiva says they won’t obey an order to evacuate a settlement,” says Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry. “When you are in the army you have to obey the orders. If the government is doing something that is not perceived as right, you can demonstrate outside the army.”
But Sherlow says that for religious soldiers, for whom politics and faith collide, Dror’s separation isn’t possible.
“[The military] is the place where the state can force them to do things against their religion. You can’t avoid it,” he says. “If you are a soldier and you get this order, you can’t escape.