The hesder yeshiva soldiers (a unit combining army service with religious studies) who have demonstrated against evacuating West Bank outposts and squatters won praise and generous funding from nationalist rabbis. The protesters claim that the government, which gives the army illegal orders, is to blame for their insubordination. They say they are rebelling because they cannot act contrary to their conscience.
These arguments are nothing but a cover for blatant political activity within the Israel Defense Forces, led by radical rabbis outside of it, some of whom openly flout the rule of law. The revolt reflects a serious problem concerning divided loyalty in the army.
The insubordinate soldiers compare themselves to conscientious left-wing dissenters such as colonel Eli Geva, who refused to carry out an order he saw as blatantly immoral during the first Lebanon war. The comparison is fallacious. Left-wing dissension was and remains controversial even among those who oppose the occupation. Most left-wing conscientious objectors act on their own accord, and when they serve their sentence in military prison nobody sends them consolation prizes.
In contrast, the hesder yeshiva students are organized in homogenous, separatist groups within their army units and frequently seek their rabbis' advice. They involve their rabbis with kashrut and other religious issues, as well as with issues pertaining to military activities. The protests against evacuation in the Nachshon and Shimshon battalions demonstrate the explosive potential of this organization, whose fragile balance could be disrupted by any political decision.
The rabbis' radicalization prompted the former head of the IDF's personnel directorate, Brig. Gen. Elazar Stern, to try to revoke the arrangement between the IDF and the hesder yeshivas and send their soldiers to regular IDF units. The defense minister at the time, Shaul Mofaz, shelved the idea amid objections from the right. Now the IDF is paying the price for that mistake.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that dissent in the IDF will destroy the state, but neither he nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak or Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi seem resolved to stop the drift.
Before the IDF becomes a phalangist army that will destroy democracy, it must make it clear to the hesder soldiers that they have only one commander and must obey every order - unless it is blatantly illegal. Otherwise the government may once again have to consider dismantling the hesder yeshivas.
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