The Privileged

There is no reason in the world why religious men should serve in the army for only a year and four months instead of three years like their secular brethren.

The skullcap on Gabi Ashkenazi's head practically radiated importance when the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff took the stage this week at a hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with army service ) in Modi'in. He had gone there to flatter and fawn over the yeshiva's rabbis, while at the same time sticking a knife into the back of his subordinate, paratroops commander Col. Aharon Haliwa, who a few days earlier had made some true and pertinent remarks.

When Ashkenazi had finished speaking, the crowd broke into tumultuous applause. MK Zevulun Orlev smiled with pleasure, while the head of the yeshiva hugged the chief of staff and even gave him a badge of honor. Ashkenazi bowed his head modestly, as if to say he knew his place next to the great yeshiva head.

But why did Ashkenazi wear a skullcap? After all, this was not a synagogue, but a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a building. The answer is that Ashkenazi believes those who wear knitted skullcaps are better, more moral Jews, while he is merely a secular Jew who pulls an empty wagon behind him.

What was Haliwa's great sin? During a conversation with soldiers doing a squad commanders' course he spoke the truth, saying something many other senior officers say only in the strictest of privacy. He said, "I can't tolerate the hesder arrangement and I don't believe it is moral." And he continued, "The hesder soldiers are excellent soldiers who set a personal example ... yet I would rather take someone less good, but who will remain here [to fill] three or four positions instead of just one, as a [hesder] yeshiva soldier does."

All Haliwa did was point out the huge distortion embodied by the hesder system, whose soldiers spend four years studying in yeshiva while serving in the army for only a year and four months. As a result of this very short service, they spend most of their time in the army in courses and do not make a big enough contribution to the IDF in command positions. It's a simple cost-benefit calculation.

Cabinet minister Moshe Ya'alon, a former chief of staff, thinks exactly the same as Haliwa does. Doron Almog, who commanded the paratroops in the late 1980s, also thinks this. After all, there is no reason in the world why religious men should serve in the army for only a year and four months instead of three years like their secular brethren. It is infuriating that the IDF does not offer such an arrangement to someone who wants to study engineering or computers at university, but does offer it to someone who wants to study Talmud.

The yeshiva students' arrogant demand that they serve only in platoons with others like them is also infuriating. This is a demand by people who consider themselves better than the rest, elitist and privileged.

And in platoons where yeshiva students do serve, the situation is very problematic. Commanders have to walk on eggshells to please them. A yeshiva student is capable of calling his rabbi at the yeshiva to complain that he did not receive enough time to pray, and then the rabbi will immediately complain to the top brass. "You have to take a lot of guff from them," one senior paratroops officer said.

Serving together gives them a special kind of power, and it is no coincidence that in the West Bank, the phenomenon of refusing to obey orders during the disengagement started in platoons where yeshiva students serve. In every yeshiva, after all, the students are brainwashed against giving up even the tiniest bit of the territories, and they consider the rabbis to be their supreme commanders, not their army officers. This is a danger to democracy and could even lead to an armed insurrection.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Elazar Stern also thinks like Haliwa does. When he served as head of the IDF's personnel directorate, he lamented the sharp rise in the number of students applying to hesder yeshivas and said this disrupted the IDF's order of forces, because "a soldier who does [ordinary] compulsory service makes a contribution three or four times greater than a hesder soldier does." And indeed, the IDF is now complaining of a manpower shortage.

Stern also tried to prevent yeshiva students from serving in separate platoons, because he wanted there to be "an intercultural meeting in IDF units" that would lead to "mutual enrichment and a feeling of partnership." But the yeshivas were furious at him and succeeded in preventing this terrible fate.

The time has come to dismantle the separate platoons and to conscript every religious youth into full, three-year service, just like their secular colleagues. The IDF is still the melting pot of Israeli society; only there can a "Russian," an "Ethiopian," a "yuppie" and a "dos" (religious person ) run together over the hills in squad exercises, making sure the line is straight so that none of them will get a bullet from behind.

But Ashkenazi would rather wear a skullcap and mouth flattering phrases.