Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is Shorter Hesder Service Morally Defensible?

One of those bizarre ironies that are the hallmarks of Israeli politics, is that it appears that in the future Haredim (minus 1800 prodigies) will serve two full years of army service, while the "Zionist" Hesder boys will serve only 17 months. I'm a former Hesder boy myself, but I've never managed to fully justify the Hesder position. The current debate is therefore of special interest to me.

Here are some of the arguments people are making to explain why Hesder remains a valid idea:

  • Rav Haim Navon -  Argues that the entire Hesder program, together with the "Yeshivot Gevehot" is less than the 1800 or so Haredi "prodigies" who would receive a full exemption from army service. As such the Hesder boys are the Dati Leumi prodigies - who still do a long meaningful service. However, the differnce is that the Dati Leumi public sees army service as a virtue, while the Haredim see it as a forced conscription. The 1800 or so "prodigy" program does not reflect a general acceptance to waiver army service for the benefit of Torah - its only signifies a political necessity. Harav Navon's answer failst to explain why Israelis at large should agree to compromise with the Dati Leumi public. 
  • Rav Tzair - normally I'm a big fan of the erudite Rav Tzair, but in this case his argument seems ridiculous. His basic argument is that Hesder comes at a cost. People who join the program forego the option of serving in elite units, and end up in the standard infantry and armor divisions. All of this is true. However, is the public really so anxious to serve in elite units that its willing to forego over a year's service from Hesder boys just so they won't compete in those units? I'm not even doubtful. Firstly there is is a certain amount of elitist thinking underlining his argument. Are really all Hesder boys such a great catch? are they all destined otherwise to serve in elite units? honestly - I studied in the Gush - probably the most elitist of Hesder Yeshivot. Many of us were fairly smart kids, and would probably have made it into good Jobnick roles. But physically? sheesh, average Yesivah boy with his thick glasses, is lucky to make it into Infantry. Secondly... Isn't it possible to argue the exact opposite? the army looses some high quality minds to the hesder program. Perhaps the army would prefer to have those young hesder geeks, instead of loosing them?
  • Yeshivot Ha'hesder - Argues that Hesder soldiers continue to be available to the army l during their time in the Yeshivah. Hesder boys are the first to be called up in times of national emergency or when the army suddenly needs a large reserve. This is actually quite a common argument, one that is factually true, but mostly irrelevant. Firstly it is extremely rare for the army to actually call up the Hesder talmidim outside of their regular army service. Offhand I have no statistics but I'm willing to bet you could count the instances in the last decade on one hand. Secondly - surely actually having all the Hesder boys serve all the time would be a greater contribution to the army then a short call up?
  • Better Miluim Attendance Rates - a common argument is that Hesder is worth it to the army because Hesder boys have a great attendance rate for Miluim. In other words, Hesder boys really end up serving a longer service if we look at a 20 year span and not a 3 year span. I've no idea if statistically the argument is true or not. However, just one question - if you didn't have a shorter service, would the same Hesder boys not show up to miluim? Do hesder boys show up more than students of Mechinot?
Some of these arguments were slightly more convincing when we were favorably compared to the Haredi community. However, now that the equality of burden is likely to become the norm, our arguments are somewhat hollow. It is time for us to think again about the Hesder Program. 

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