Tardily and with much hesitation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced on Sunday that he was expelling the Har Bracha yeshiva from the hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service. Barak accepted Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's recommendation to sever the Israel Defense Forces from an institution whose head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, has expressed support for refusing to obey orders. Melamed urged his students to disobey orders to evacuate settlers and accused the top military brass of being "politically tainted." And soldiers from his yeshiva who served in the Kfir Brigade demonstrated against evacuations.
Barak's decision is only symbolic: It does not release the IDF from its problematic arrangement with the yeshivas, which have become a right-wing bastion in combat units and whose students view their rabbis as a parallel source of authority to their commanding officers. But its importance should not be underestimated. This is the first time the defense establishment, which for years has been negligent in dealing with lawbreakers on the right, has set a "price tag" for rabbis who undermine the foundations of democracy and tell their students which orders to obey and which to refuse.
The support for Melamed among the heads of other hesder yeshivas, and their threats to discourage their students from joining the army to protest this "interference in a rabbi's spiritual path," shows the grave danger of creating within the army a private militia of the extreme r ight, subservient to the directives of the rabbis. It is difficult to imagine a more clear and present danger to democracy, and to the strength of Israeli society, than such threats of rebellion - even if they come wrapped in pretty slogans about hesder soldiers' motivation and contribution to the army.
Barak must therefore stand strong. He must not give in to pressure or be enticed into compromises and mediation. The line the defense minister drew is clear: Rabbi Melamed and his doctrine are unacceptable and have no place in the IDF. The cancellation of the arrangement with his yeshiva must be a precedent and a warning to other yeshivas and their heads.
But this battle cannot be left solely to the defense minister and the army. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must back Barak completely. Yet so far, Netanyahu has hidden behind Barak, allowing right-wing extremists to claim that "the minister from the left is persecuting them for political reasons."
The prime minister must make it clear that he will not accept breaches of discipline, or of the army's subservience to the elected civilian leadership - not even in the name of the ideology of the greater land of Israel. If he hesitates, he will do fatal damage to Israeli democracy.
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