Open Zion

07.10.13

Why Did a Controversial Yeshiva Regain Israeli Government Approval?

Early Monday afternoon, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced the reinstatement of Yeshivat Har Bracha, the undergraduate-level religious seminary of the eponymous West Bank settlement, to the Hesder program. Hesder’s five-year track mixes army service with intense, academic Torah study. As government-sponsored schools, Hesder seminaries also receive public funding. Before losing its Hesder status in 2009, Har Bracha got around 20 percent of its budget from the government.

Yaalon’s decision to reinstate Har Bracha to Hesder is controversial because of the circumstances under which the Defense Ministry first revoked its membership. In 2009, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the dean of Har Bracha, made statements supporting the right of religious IDF soldiers to refuse orders that contravene Jewish law. The IDF had not made consumption of pork and shellfish compulsory—it was, hypothetically, going to ask religious soldiers, like any IDF soldiers, to participate in evacuations of settlements from the West Bank.

As a prominent religious figure in the settlement movement, Rabbi Melamed’s words carried great weight. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister at the time, rightly worried about the potential of national-religious leaders like Rabbi Melamed to foment discord between the national-religious community and the IDF. To deter the prospect of civil war, he had Har Bracha removed from the Hesder network, making it the first Hesder yeshiva to receive such a punishment. It was an unmistakably clear message to other Hesder schools—indeed to the whole national-religious community—that they incite rebellion against IDF authority at their own peril.

Or was it? Since 2009, Melamed has not said anything, in public, to indicate that his views have changed on the issue of IDF orders and settlement evacuation; yet as of Monday, Har Bracha is once again a member of the Hesder network and, in turn, is an IDF-sponsored yeshiva. The reinstatement of Har Bracha makes it eligible for government benefits and all the privileges accorded to Hesder schools.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing politicians and the Hesder federation were quick to laud Yaalon’s decision, treating it as a vindication of Har Bracha’s refusenik stance against settlement evacuation.

What’s missing from this Hesder-Yaalon love fest is a satisfactory explanation of why Har Bracha was reinstated. Yaalon made only a weak attempt at offering one:

It became clear after discussions with the Rosh Yeshiva that there is absolute loyalty to IDF orders in the Yeshiva educational program. I have no tolerance for refusal to obey commands, and it is evident that Har Bracha agrees fully.

But it remains unclear to anyone who isn’t Moshe Yaalon how Rabbi Melamed’s position has changed: does he now believe that one should listen to IDF orders, even if it means removing settlers?

Yaalon, for his part, appears to be alluding to private conversations he’s had with Rabbi Melamed in answering that question. According to Israel Hayom, Yaalon’s office wouldn’t return calls inquiring about the specifics of those conversations. Essentially, Yaalon is asking the Israeli public, which pays to help keep Rabbi Melamed’s yeshiva open, to trust him that students of Har Bracha will comply with IDF orders, to believe him that their money isn’t going toward a school that will instigate a civil war at the first sign of withdrawal from the West Bank, to have faith that Rabbi Melamed isn’t saying one thing to the Defense Ministry and another to his students. Why? Because Rabbi Melamed told him so.

But let’s say that Yaalon is right: that Melamed is now fully committed to ensuring IDF soldiers obey orders, even if those orders contradict their political and/or religious beliefs. If so, it would behoove Yaalon, and Melamed, to reveal the details of their conversations.

Doing so could help Melamed win back the trust of the general Israeli public that now funds his institution, and against which he effectively threatened rebellion. And, assuming that Rabbi Melamed suddenly does believe in the integrity of the IDF’s orders regarding settlement evacuations, it would also help counter the belief among many in the national-religious community that it’s justified—even incumbent on them—to refuse such orders.