There is no room for insubordination in the IDF on the basis of ideology. That has been the case since Israel was formed as a state and the IDF was constituted from the Haganah. Back then, it took into its fold not just the Haganah fighters but also the Irgun fighters who had a very different political philosophy. Being a conscription army, the IDF has always been a sort-of melting pot for Israeli society and a “people’s army” whose task it is to defend Israel from the many threats it has faced and faces.
One small hiccup in this plan was the provision granted during the formation of the state by Ben Gurion to the Orthodox: (this is in a nutshell) they would control civic laws and they would be permitted to refuse military service if they were studying Torah.
That has translated into generations of Orthodox men who have not served in the IDF. By the same token, the Orthodox Zionist stream, took it upon itself to participate actively and diligently in the IDF by sending their husbands and sons not just to the army, but often to combat units. In the past two decades, this movement has accelerated and many of the soldiers who go to combat and elite units in the IDF are Orthodox Jews, typically from an Orthodox Zionist background and frequently from families who live or support those who live in Judea and Samaria/West Bank or formerly in Gaza.
They and the IDF overcame the hurdle of ensuring these highly motivated, effective soldiers would continue to serve and join the army in large numbers despite their ability to avoid service by simply declaring they would study Torah, by establishing the Hesder system. Hesder apparently means “arrangement” in Hebrew, although I’m not sure that is the reason they names this system “Hesder.” The arrangement calls for these Orthodox soldiers to spread their 3 year military service over 5 years while using the additional two years as a period of study at these specific yeshivas that were part of the system.
A few years ago, during the disengagement from Gaza, there was already a great deal of concern that since the ranks of the Hesder soldiers were dominated by people who reside in the Territories, that there would be insubordination and a refusal to obey orders. To the credit of the IDF and these soldiers, there were only a small number of problems, but for the most part these soldiers did what they had to do. In the meantime, it is no accident that the IDF often sends soldiers from different backgrounds than Orthodox Zionism to address issues involving the Israeli population living in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.
Over the past several weeks, a severe crisis has been brewing in the IDF after a number of new recruits from Orthodox Zionist backgrounds publicly declared that they would not act on orders to remove settler outposts. Their actions were supported by some of the Hesder yeshivas, and some of the religious leaders connected to these yeshivas provided support for these soldiers. These rabbis also began to speak publicly about the right of these soldiers to act this way even if it is in violation of orders.
Ehud Barak, a secular Israeli who is renowned as a great combat soldier and military leader, is the current Minister of Defense. He, together with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, decided that they had to nip this movement in the bud and ordered that a certain outspoken Rabbi Melamed who heads a Hesder yeshiva stop teaching his guards that their actions against the IDF were permissible and desirable. He refused and Barak ordered to eliminate his yeshiva from the roster of approved yeshivas for Hesder.
Since then, a petition signed by over 150 combat soldiers, has been passed around, essentially demanding that Barak refrain from taking any such actions with the implied threat that they would stop their IDF service otherwise. Now a group of rabbis who lead Hesder yeshivas have met and instead of announcing that they would get off their high horse, publicly insulted Barak and rejected his actions. These are religious leaders who can and do influence the students who study in their yeshivas, students who are also some of the IDF’s best soldiers today.
This is a delicate moment in Israel’s history. In fact, in some ways it may be a defining moment. Historically, the population in Israel has skewed to the secular, and they have represented the majority in the IDF and were often the leaders in its combat units and elite ranks. The past couple of decades have changed this equation, particularly because of the Hesder yeshivas, and these days some of the most important IDF units and up-and-coming officers come from a religious background. This change is also reflected in the general population as the ratio of observant to non-observant or non-halachically-observant Israelis changes.
What the Hesder leaders are doing is a simple power play. They are telling the IDF’s establishment that they call the shots, not the politicians and not the secular generals. If something is deemed to be offensive to these Hesder soldiers, the rabbis suggest, then they can simply refuse to participate in their orders.
Barak knows that if he lets this course of action emerge victorious, the IDF is going to become an ineffective force in short order. He also knows that some of these soldiers are the best and most highly motivated Israel has. On the other hand, if he does nothing, then they will come to view the IDF as a shell that facilitates their political views and nothing more.
As hard as it’s going to be for Barak, he should not be afraid to shurt down any Hesder yeshivas that are out of line or whose rabbis support order-refusal. Even if it means shutting down the entire system and replacing it with new yeshivas or none at all for a while. It will be wrenching for many Israelis, especially the Orthodox Zionists, to be sure. It will be challenging for the IDF to survive otherwise and without a strong IDF, there will not be a Jewish state in short order. These young soldiers are in a bind as well, and that’s why he should not be afraid to blow up the Hesder system. These soldiers’ homes and communities rely on the IDF and without a strong IDF, they may well soon be in a war with Palestinian forces.
Shut down these yeshivas and make these rabbis lose the right to participate in any future Hesder program. Announce that any community which has more than 3 soldiers or new conscripts who refuse to serve with full support for the IDF’s leadership will lose its IDF protection for a period of 3 years. Demote every soldier who takes active steps to support this movement to challenge the IDF (petitions are fine, I’m talking about people who take concrete steps to challenge their commanders or the system) and remove them from service for a period of 3 years.
There is no room for compromise here. Israel’s very existence relies on an effective counter-offensive to what these rabbis are trying to do.