The Hesder Bubble

Hesder students and their rabbis are not capable of looking around them and understanding how they are perceived by many others.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The hesder yeshivas educate their students about modesty and courtesy. Yet when it comes to creating esprit de corps, these yeshivas, which combine Torah study with military service, rival the most famed elite units. During the years I sat in the yeshiva's study hall and served in the army as part of the hesder program, my comrades and I had it drilled into us incessantly that by combining study with service, we were contributing more to the nation of Israel than any other soldier in the Israel Defense Forces or any yeshiva student who opted not to enlist.

The rabbis aren't the only ones who strive to inflate the egos of hesder soldiers. Public figures who visit hesder yeshivas - every politician, whether from the right or left, and every general, whether in the career army or the reserves - make sure to reiterate the mantra that this is a welcome, unique and important project. This steady stream of praise has, over the years, created a bubble mentality. Hesder students and their rabbis, convinced that they are integrated into both the army and Israeli society, are not capable of looking around them and understanding how they are perceived by many others.

They do not understand that for every senior officer who praises their devotion and self-sacrifice, another officer is asking himself and his colleagues: If the hesder boys are such devoted soldiers, why don't they serve three full years instead of only 16 months, and only then resume their Torah study? If they are such high-quality soldiers, why don't more of them go on to officer training, instead of joining the first-string reserves (which are called up before regular reservists), marrying and starting a family?

They also do not understand that for every defense minister who is photographed in the synagogue surrounded by rabbis, another senior official is worrying about the creation of militias whose members' loyalty belongs first and foremost to their rabbi and only then to their commanding officer.

Despite the unique privileges of hesder students - military service that is shortened by more than half, the option of serving with their fellow yeshiva students, and a better-than-average chance of serving in the more prestigious brigades - a feeling has been created in the hesder yeshivas that its students are doing a favor to the IDF and the state.

This feeling has intensified over the past decade due to a series of confrontations between the yeshivas and the military establishment in which the rabbis imposed their will thanks to their insistence that right was on their side and the broad political backing they received. That's what happened when the rabbis faced off against the former head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Elazar Stern, and insisted that their soldiers continue to serve in homogenous platoons and be drafted into the sought-after Golani and Paratroops brigades. That's also what happened when they blocked the integration of women into combat units and imposed a document about "appropriate integration" on the IDF top brass, and when they continued receiving funding from both the education and defense ministries, contrary to the recommendations of the Brodet report on the defense budget. And it's what happened when, four years ago, they blocked then-chief of staff Dan Halutz's recommendation that yeshivas whose heads had urged soldiers to disobey orders during the disengagement be expelled from the hesder system.

The heads of the hesder yeshivas have adopted an almost ultra-Orthodox worldview: The yeshiva world is pure and can never err. Even when the religious Zionist public underwent a brief period of soul-searching following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the yeshivas made no effort to come to grips with the fact that Yigal Amir had graduated from the doyen of the hesder yeshivas, Kerem B'Yavneh. The blame was put entirely on Bar-Ilan University, which he attended afterward.

Not all hesder rabbis agree with the support expressed by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, dean of the Har Bracha yeshiva, for disobeying orders, and the vast majority of them object to his crude behavior toward senior IDF officers and the Defense Ministry. But now they are closing ranks around him and vehemently opposing Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to oust his yeshiva from the hesder system.

The rabbis do not understand that not everyone views the hesder yeshivas as the pinnacle of perfection, and some even view them as a threat to the IDF's integrity. The hesder rabbis' current approach is liable to cause irreversible damage to the enterprise they have built.



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