"The mechinot revolutionized the army and Israeli society." - Maj. Gen. Stern
In a speech on Thursday to a gathering of students enrolled in the nation's religious military preparatory academies, Maj.-Gen. Stern, who is religious himself, explained that he was very much in favor of the integration of religious soldiers with non-religious soldiers in single units. This has led to his opposition to accepting groups of students from the nation's Hesder yeshivas as single, homogeneous blocs. In fact, due to what he said were the needs of the military, Stern explained his announcement last week that Hesder yeshiva students will no longer be accepted at all into the paratrooper and Golani combat brigades. However, he had great praise for the mechina programs.
"The mechinot revolutionized the army and Israeli society," Maj.-Gen. Stern said of the religious pre-military programs. "It is an endeavor with historic meaning."
Most soldiers serve in the IDF for three years, while Hesder soldiers spend 16 months in active service and more than three years in yeshiva. In the army, the Hesder students have tended to serve together as a bloc. Mechina programs, in contrast, involve an intensive year of Torah learning and generally another form of pre-military studies. After that year, the program graduates go on to enlist for the full three years in all military branches and not necessarily alongside other religiously observant soldiers.
When asked by a student at one of the preparatory programs to explain his decision to suspend Hesder service in Golani and paratroop units, Stern acknowledged that the Hesder yeshivas had a place in society but he suggested that they should be grateful that the state allows them that option. "I think that the rabbis and students of the Hesder yeshivas should have a little modesty. Modesty in light of the state allowing them to serve less than half of the [regular military] service - and if you are asking, even a third," Maj. Gen. Stern said. "It must be remembered that the bulk of our field operations are daily events. Therefore, out of modesty, the Hesder yeshivas should say 'thank you' to the state for allowing them an abbreviated service. It is not something to be taken for granted."
As head of the IDF human resources, Maj. Gen. Stern explained that he has four potential soldiers for every open spot in the elite paratrooper and Golani units, while the army needs soldiers for the combat engineering and armored corps. "You have already been allowed to serve 16 months instead of three years? Come to where the army needs you. What's all the noise about?"
"The Hesder yeshivas should say 'thank you' to the state for allowing them an abbreviated service."
Stern went on to claim that he is concerned about the desecration of the name of God and the Torah when Hesder yeshiva students who can't handle the elite unit training are able to return to yeshiva after eight months, which other soldiers cannot do.
Hundreds of Hesder yeshiva students have signed a petition sent to the IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi against the decision to bar them from the paratroopers and Golani brigades. MK Uri Ariel (National Union-NRP) also sent a letter to the Chief of Staff, requesting that the Hesder yeshiva status quo be maintained.
Insisting he was not against the Hesder yeshivas, Stern added, "As far as I am concerned, the Hesder yeshivas were founded so that people would learn Torah and deepen their understanding of it. To my great sorrow, some of the yeshivas drag the soldiers from us because 'if they won't be in the yeshivas, then they'll take off their kippah.' That is not what Hesder yeshivas are for."
Stern also spoke about the opportunity religious soldiers have to educate their fellow non-religious soldiers about Jewish religion and culture: "I think that integrated service - which is no picnic - is the most important educational seminar in the State of Israel, the most consistent."