Three yeshiva student soldiers have been sentenced to 21 days in army prison for refusing to take part in a weeks-long course with female instructors and participants.
Despite the army guidelines that state specifically that soldiers must not be forced to serve in frameworks that negate their religious lifestyle, the soldiers were told they must participate in the course - and were, in fact, tried and imprisoned for not doing so. They began their sentence on Tuesday afternoon.
'At this rate, more and more religious soldiers will feel that they have no choice but to find ways not to serve in the army.'
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the dean of the Hesder Yeshiva (combining army service and Torah study) in the Samarian community of Har Brachah, explained the background to Arutz-7's Hebrew newsmagazine:
"In the past, males and females were, for the most part, separated in the army. About ten years ago, however, the Supreme Court ruled that girls must be integrated into various units - and since then this has been done in almost all of the army's units, leading to a clearly secular environment throughout the army. Guidelines were made for religious soldiers, called the "Suitable Integration" guidelines, which were supposed to be for our benefit, but in actuality create a sort of religious ghetto for the soldiers. Now, however, we see that even this ghetto is not being preserved."
The soldiers in question were sent to a three-week course involving balloon-based observation. Though the course is taught solely by females, and involves the active participation of female soldiers, the yeshiva student soldiers were not asked in advance whether they agreed to participate. Even when they ultimately found out the nature of the course and registered their complaints, they were told that they must either take part or face jail time. They chose, by default, the latter.
'Now We Don't Know What to Tell Them'
"These were boys who deliberated very much before enlisting in the army," Rabbi Melamed said, "because they didn't know if they would be able to observe a religious way of life in the army. We, as rabbis and heads of hesder yeshivas, assured them that they would be able to serve in the army without compromising their beliefs - and now we don't know what to tell them."
"I am sorry to say that the general atmosphere in the army these days is a lack of respect for Jewish tradition and for the demands of Jewish Law," Rabbi Melamed said. "The feeling is that the Supreme Court determines everything. I must say that it appears that almost everything bad that occurs in this country is rooted in the Supreme Court. Even the integration of girls in the army - the army commanders were originally against it, and even now, the lower-level commanders don't like the idea."
Before the three soldiers were tried and sent to prison, another yeshiva soldier received the backing of his commander when he said he could not participate, for religious reasons, and was exempted from the course.
Too Many Complaints?
Arutz-7's Uzi Baruch said, "Some officers have said that the hesder boys complain and wail every time they see a girl in the base."
"It's far from that," Rabbi Melamed said. "It's that they don't want to live in a totally secular environment, in which boys and girls are completely integrated, and with the environment that that brings on... We originally agreed, grudgingly, to have one-time classes given by female instructors - but it turned out that these one-time classes became week-long affairs, and the students said they felt very uncomfortable. How many times can there be a one-time class?"
The IDF has not, as of yet, issued a response to the incident.
Concern for the Future
Rabbi Melamed expressed pride in his students, "who made their decision on their own, without consulting me. I think they did the right thing, and they built themselves in the process, and they deserve much credit... They were told by others in the army that by doing this, they 'lost' the support of the base commander, who until now was said to like religious soldiers, but now says he won't accept any more religious soldiers on his base. The yeshiva soldiers said in response that if they contributed to causing religious soldiers not to be stationed at this totally secular base, their entire enlistment was worthwhile."
"I believe that at this rate, more and more religious soldiers will feel that they have no choice but to find ways not to serve in the army," Rabbi Melamed said. "There will be some who will feel they must serve no matter what, but there will be many who will not - and this is very grave from a national perspective. The army must know that at present, half the Jewish first-graders in the country are in religious schools, and more than half of these are in hareidi-religious schools. If the army does not find the way to make it easier for religious soldiers to serve, the result will simply be that there will be fewer soldiers in the army. This must be prevented."
The army guidelines read as follows: "If a religiously observant soldier requests to be placed in a sectarian framework, this must be done... Even in difficult situations, there must be separation of the sexes at least in the framework of a [2-3 person] team [for example, inside a tank]... A framework that includes religiously observant soldiers must be instructed by instructors of the same gender."