Sunday 20 December 2009

Why Force the Soldiers to Choose?

The Hesder yeshiva program has been in operation in Israel for more than 50 years. The "hesder" (English translation "arrangement") yeshivot have formed an important part of Israeli society by allowing religious boys to combine military service with Torah study. The programs usually run for 5 or 6 years of which approximately 2 years are spent serving in the military with the rest of the time spent studying Jewish texts. The number of such institutions have grown to over 40 across Israel, and the number of students/soldiers currently number in the tens of thousands. The hesder yeshiva students have mostly served as combat soldiers during their service, and have formed an important part of the IDF with the combination of their loyalty and strong ideology.

As part of their yeshiva studies, the students are instructed about situations that they may find themselves in which could present a conflict between their military service and their religious observance. The classic situations usually involve how they might react when called upon to violate the rules of Shabbat or of a religious holidaywhilst carrying out a military exercise. As a general rule, they are instructed to uphold religious observance unless they are in a life-or-death situation, or in a situation where the violation of the religious observance is unavoidable. Many of the situations where they are called upon to violate are fairly clear-cut, and not the subject of debate. For example, if soldier would be called upon to violate one of the ten commandments, this would be a clear conflict situations. Many rabbinical rulings over the years have also been adopted into broad-based common practice such that there is no debate as to whether violating one of the rulings would be an accepted violation of Jewish Law. There are, however, many rabbinical rulings and interpretations that are not widely accepted by other rabbis. So it could happen that some soldiers refuse to undertake an action due to their rabbi having ruled that doing so would constitute a violation, whilst other soldiers are quite happy to undertake the same action without any fear of violating Jewish Law as interpreted by their rabbi.

An issue of this nature has recently arisen which is threatening the very foundations of the Hesder yeshiva program. It concerns the evacuation of settlements which are being constructed in the West Bank, and which are in contravention of government policy. The religious community, which forms the driving force within the settler movement and also behind the Hesder yeshiva program, largely follows the ideology of the "greater land of Israel". This means that they believe that the boundaries set out in the Bible's book of Genesis are the real borders of the State of Israel. These borders are much broader than the current State of Israel, and go even further than simply including the West Bank and Gaza. So, although they don't hold out immediate hope that modern-day Jordan and parts of Iraq will become part of the Jewish state any time soon, they do hold onto the belief that any land in Israel's possession should not be relinquished. It is for this reason that they send people out to remote locations to "inhabit" the land. It is their belief that, in so doing, it makes it more difficult for the government to relinquish this land in any agreement struck with the Palestinians due to "facts on the ground".

There is a pecking order in the adherence to Jewish Law. Preserving life and personal safety is regarded as being of primary importance. This means that it is permissible to transgress any other rules and laws in the interests of preserving life and personal safety. There are those in the religious community who trust the government's policies and actions with regard to the division of land and territory, and recognise that the government would not choose to give up Jewish land unless it was in the interests of securing the safety of the people of Israel. In these terms, evacuation of settlements is permissible even though it is a transgression because it secures personal safety. This is where some lack of consensus arises with the reaction of the Hesder yeshiva students. Some rabbis rule that it giving up parts of the greater Land of Israel are permissible where it secures life and limb.

The government has had to call upon help from the military from time to time to evacuate outposts which have been established contrary to government policy. Some of the outposts are very temporary comprising a few tents or prefabricated buildings. Others already contain more permanent structures. The use of Hesder yeshiva soldiers for this task caused a great deal of controversy during the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, and recently reared its ugly head again. Some of the Hesder program rabbis have instructed their students to disobey military commands to evacuate such establishments within the greater Land of Israel, as this is contrary to Jewish Law. Clearly, the IDF finds a situation where significant numbers of its soldiers are refusing commands intolerable. This has led to a notable escalation in the tension between some of the Hesder yeshivot and the military establishment. These tensions reached a point last week where one yeshiva was even expelled from the Hesder program due to the head of the yeshiva calling upon soldiers to disobey commands.

I feel that placing the Hesder yeshiva soldiers in the middle of this controversy is unfair, and avoidable. The rabbis clearly understand that instructing a large group of soldiers who hold influence within the IDF to disobey orders is intolerable in any army environment. Similarly, the military must surely understand the level of sensitivity involved in ordering soldiers to evacuate locations that may even house members of the soldiers' friends and families. Expecting the soldier to make the call in the heat of battle is not fair on anybody, particularly not fair on the soldier himself, and needs to be avoided at all costs. There must surely be enough other options available to the military and to the Hesder program to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.

The IDF does not conform to the typical command-control structure employed by many other armies around the world, which calls for blind obedience on the part of the soldier to the instructions of his superior. The IDF manages somehow to combine the adherence to superiors' commands with the promotion of thought and creativity of the part of each soldier. While this may disrupt the discipline typically expected within the military, this philosophy has paid enormous dividends in the IDF's history when situations arose where soldiers were better placed than their commanders to make decisions in the field of battle. The Hesder soldiers generally have strong decision-making skills, and it would be shame to remove their willingness to make important decisions by forcing them to make decisions which do not belong in the army, and have no winners.

For the sake of the future of the IDF and to guarantee the future of the Hesder program, the soldiers should not be forced to choose between the orders of their commanders and their rabbis. Rather, the commanders and rabbis should be holding a dialogue to find a way to allow these young men to adhere to Jewish law and to serve their country in the easiest and most efficient possible way.

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