Rebuffing the haredi attack on hesder yeshivot

By: David M. Weinberg

Feb 28, 2014

Haredi politicians are impudently, hypocritically and vengefully stoking negative stories about the hesder program. 

Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, February 28, 2014.

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Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox politicians are not satisfied with the incredibly sweet deal they’ve wrung for their community from the Shaked Committee. It’s not enough that almost all adult Haredi men are going to get a blanket and permanent exemption from army service under cover of a badly mislabeled “military draft” bill. It’s not enough that most Haredi youth will also be able to scamper out of the flimsy and malleable draft quotas that are set for the distant future by the Shaked legislation.

That’s not enough for Haredi leadership. They want more. They want revenge.

They’re out to exact retribution on Naftali Bennett’s Religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party for partnering with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and threatening to draft Haredim. So in pure payback mode, Haredi politicians have stoked the current spate of negative press stories about Religious Zionist “hesder” yeshivot (which over five years combine yeshiva study with shortened military service).

All of a sudden, numerous articles in the papers have outrageously portrayed hesder boys as slackers, cheats, and fat cats. I know for a fact that Haredi MKs are behind this vile campaign to malign and clip the hesder yeshivas.

The Haredi chutzpa here is threefold.

FIRST, the Haredim are enormously ungrateful for the fantastic deal that Bennett and his deputy Ayalet Shaked have crafted for them. Anybody who looks closely into the details of the Shaked legislation knows that the bill won’t really draft Haredim to the military. The bill is designed primarily to free Haredim from being locked by law into the yeshiva world, and prod them to get a professional education and go to work – for their own good and that of the country.

The much-ballyhooed “military draft” plan involves little change in the non-conscription reality for Haredim.

From now to 2017, it gives a blanket and permanent exemption from military service to all Haredi men. That’s 27,000 Haredi men (21 years and over at this moment) who will never serve in the Israel army, along with 7,000 additional Haredi boys who will turn 18 each year between now and 2017.

Beginning in 2017, certain quotas of Haredim have to be drafted, but these quotas are set so low and the definition of a “Haredi” person is set so malleably, that Haredi society will easily fill the quotas with youth that anyway are on the margins of religious society. The massive bulk of Haredi youth will continue to escape army and national service of any type.

This new setup is wrong for Israel in so many ways, and it essentially pulls the rug out from under the positive trend toward Haredi integration in the army that has been underway for several years.

But it is certainly a victory for the Haredim, even if they’re not letting on how pleased they are.

You might ask: If the new deal is so beneficial to the Haredim, why is Haredi leadership so vociferously trotting out its anger? Because Haredi yeshiva deans fear that under the new arrangements, massive numbers of yeshiva boys and kollel men will leave for the working world; not because they truly fear that IDF conscription officers will be able to bite into the Haredi cohort of draft-age boys. (As I say, they won’t).

The bottom line is that from the Haredi perspective, Bennett and Shaked, and the Religious Zionist world they represent, should be blessed, not battered. Revving-up a nasty campaign against the hesder yeshivas is simply base ungratefulness. Being unthankful is a Biblically-proscribed sin, as is the taking of revenge.

That’s two “aveirot mideoraita” committed by Haredi politicians – two major offenses that violate Divine Torah law.

SECOND, in attempting to besmirch the hesder yeshiva program by feeding stories about weak attendance and leaking reports about lack supervision at some hesder institutions, the Haredim are calling the kettle black. Who knows more about false attendance records and double- and triple-timing kollel men, than the Haredi yeshiva world? Who knows more about keeping weak boys who show no promise inside the yeshiva world for years on end without purpose, than the Haredi yeshiva world?

The cynical and revengeful Haredi politicians should be reminded what Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon of the IDF Planning Directorate told the Shaked Committee. He testified that Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva leaders were regularly signing fraudulent yeshiva student attendance records to protect Haredi men from military service. “We know that there are thousands of Haredim registered in yeshivas to avoid the draft, but who in fact are working and not studying,” he said.

THIRD, the very fact that the hesder yeshivas are being discussed in the same breath and the same context as the drafting of Haredim – is intolerable. Yes, there is room to critique and improve the hesder yeshivas (in terms of IDF service length and quality control within the yeshivas). But that’s a wholly different discussion. Broaching it in the current context is sheer gall and ingratitude.

How dare Haredim seek to divert the discussion from their own draft-dodging ways to criticism of the hesder yeshiva boys – who have made a historic contribution to the IDF and to communities all over Israel? How dare the Haredim disparage the hesder boys – who generally learn Torah at an outstanding level and serve the army and the state with distinction?

Let’s see Haredi boys serve 16 months of hard-core combat duty, plus years more of active reserve duty, and remain upstandingly devoted to Torah, as the hesder soldiers are – before Haredi politicians open their mouths in denigration of the hesder program!

I only wish that Haredi boys could be exposed to the scholarship and critical thinking in Torah that hesder boys get. Halevai! I only wish that Haredi yeshivas should churn out the brilliant and broad-minded minded Torah publications of the scope and caliber produced by hesder yeshivas. Halevai!

So Haredi politicians should clam up. Their impudence in revving-up the attack on the hesder program is simply nauseating. Had Haredi leaders been smart, they would have long ago founded their own hesder-like yeshiva/army combination programs, and saved themselves and the country a lot of hatred and heartache.

Similarly, I reject the attacks on hesder of some left-wing politicians like Tzipi Livni. It’s shamefully obvious that Livni is cynically jumping on this bandwagon as a way of slapping down Bennett and his largely right-wing Religious Zionist community, because these voters are not supportive of her beloved peace process with the Palestinians.

FOR THE RECORD, I want to take this opportunity to sing the praises of the hesder yeshiva program, in which I and my son have studied. While numbering only about 750 young men a year, hesder yeshivas made have over the past 40 years an oversize contribution to the development of Torah and academic leadership in this country. They also contribute an oversize share to IDF combat units.

Hesder boys are considered highly-motivated and disciplined soldiers. They serve longer and more consistently in the IDF reserves than other soldiers. They have proved themselves in combat in all recent conflicts, in Lebanon and Gaza. And unfortunately, higher-than-average percentages of hesder soldiers fell in these conflicts too.

I remember being woken in the early morning hours of the First Lebanon War by my roommate in the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva, because he and others were being called-up to join their military unit and fight the war. (Etched into my memory is their scrambling in the dark in pajamas towards the one yeshiva pay phone to call their mothers, before heading north to the front). Not all my hesder yeshiva classmates returned. I doubt that many of the acrimonious Haredi politicians who this week decided to savage the hesder yeshivas ever have had such an ennobling and humbling experience.

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, dean of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva (who, it was just announced, is to receive this year’s Israel Prize for Torah scholarship), wrote 30 years ago that “Hesder at its finest seeks to attract and develop men who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious Torah scholars but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country; who, given the historical exigencies of their time and place, regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty; who, in comparison with their non-hesder confreres love not Torah less but Israel more. It provides a context within which students can focus upon enhancing their personal spiritual and intellectual growth while yet heeding the call to public service. It thus enables them to maintain an integrated Jewish existence, despite the conflict of values, lifestyle, and sensibility between ‘bet midrash’ (Torah study hall) and boot camp, especially in a predominantly secular army.”

Rav Lichtenstein: “The halachic rationale for hesder rests upon the simple need for physical survival and the fact that military service is often the fullest manifestation of “gemilut hasadim,” the empathetic concern for others and action on their behalf, which is one of the three cardinal foundations of the world, and is the basis of Jewish social ethics. Its realization, even at some cost to single-minded development of Torah scholarship, is virtually imperative. In contemporary Israel, the greatest single “hesed” (good deed) one can perform is helping to defend his fellows’ very lives. And it is inspiring to behold.”

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About David Weinberg

David M. Weinberg is a spokesman, speechwriter, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »


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