Less than 24 hours had passed since worshipers prayed "Our Father our King seal us in the book of forgiveness and absolution" during the Neilah service when a large group of Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall plaza assaulted the head of the Israel Defense Forces' Personnel Directorate, Major General Elazar Stern, and his family.
The pretext for the attack was Stern's role in implementing the disengagement plan. Stern, a religiously observant Jew, had staunchly represented the view that all soldiers, including the religious ones and students of hesder yeshivas, should obey the state's authority and the army's orders.
The chief of the Personnel Directorate denied the authority of rabbis - among them some of the heads of the hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah study with military service) - to instruct their soldier students to refuse orders related to implementing the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. He was in the forefront of those in the General Staff who held that they should not be deterred from abolishing the hesder yeshiva system, or at least dismantling part of it, should it emerge that yeshiva heads were, indeed, directing their students not to take part in the evacuation.
Stern, and likewise other senior religious officers, ruled categorically on the dilemma, ostensibly posed by the pullout, between a rabbinical edict and army order: They opted to obey the state.
Therefore, the rage was directed at them. Worked-up gangs from among so-called nationalist ultra-Orthodox and Haredi circles attacked the rabbi of the IDF Central Command, the IDF chief rabbi and religious commanders of units who reside in the territories, harassed them and sometimes also their families. Stern himself became the object of stormy harassment during one of his visits to the Gush Katif settlement bloc.
Ultimately, quite a lot of the religious soldiers and officers were spared the need to decide between the state and "the view of the Torah" (as their rabbis interpret it): The lion's share of the conscripted combat units, in which a majority of hesder yeshiva graduates serve, were not deployed to the confrontation line with the settlers. The General Staff imposed that task on rearguard units and reserves companies. That is one of the reasons for the mature and restrained conduct of the security forces during the evacuation. The conscript units were allocated for combat duty - in the event that the Palestinians used weapons to disrupt the pullout. That, at any rate, was the explanation heard in the IDF for maintaining the conscript brigades as an auxiliary force.
It was a wise decision under the circumstances, but it would be best not to overlook its implications: Religious soldiers, including hesder yeshiva students, did not have their obedience to army orders fully tested in the course of the disengagement. The prevailing conclusion, that the threats of refusing orders were proved to be empty threats, requires further proof.
In any case, the attack Friday evening on Major General Stern once again demonstrates that among the ultra-Orthodox and religious public there are forces sufficiently upset and extensive to go after senior civil servants and even to endanger their lives. The terrible experience the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate and his family underwent should not be looked upon lightly: There is a hairbreadth between stone throwing and the use of live fire, and experience shows that even stoning can be deadly. What matters is that senior officers and public officials continue to be vulnerable to attack when they seek to exercise their right to go about their daily business.
In the eyes of his assailants, Stern, to his discredit, is of the opinion that rebellious hesder yeshivas should be shut down. That recommendation has not been implemented so far, even though the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, has made public statements embracing it. The excuse for refraining from this relies on the weakness of the refusal phenomenon during the evacuation from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
It may be presumed that what was largely at work in this matter were the considerations of politicians: The prime minister and defense minister prefer not to exacerbate the relations with the leaders of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox public, nor with the heads of the National Religious Party. That attitude could boomerang. The assault on Major General Stern shows that violent hubs of unrest continue to exist among the ultra-Orthodox and extremist-religious public. Were the state to alter its attitude toward this public, take it to account for its approach toward its rules and decisions, and create deterrence with regard to it, then it might possibly help it more to restrain the overwrought groups active within it.
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