The Hesder Yeshivot as Agents of Social Change in Religious Zionism

Shlomo Abramovich. Israel Studies. Volume 25, Issue 2. Summer 2020.


Hesder yeshivot are post-high-school institutions within a unique branch of the IDF where religious Zionist yeshiva students spend part of their army service engaged in higher Torah learning and the remainder doing active military service. The hesder (meaning “arrangement” in Hebrew) yeshivot provide a solution to the long-debated issue of army service for religious youth, but they also play an important role as agents for social change in religious Zionist society. The article traces the history of the first hesder yeshviot during the 1960s and 1970s, based on hitherto unexplored archival sources, and assesses their influence on Religious Zionism and the extensive social and religious changes they introduced.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut 1991, the prestigious Israel Prize was awarded to the hesder yeshivot for their “special contribution to society and the state.” The hesder yeshivot are post-high-school educational institutions for religious Zionist soldiers who spend part of their army service engaged in higher Torah learning and the remainder doing active military service. However, the importance of the hesder, in Hebrew “arrangement”, goes beyond the inclusion of religious Zionist youth in the IDF. The “arrangement” with the army evolved a full decade after the establishment of the first hesder yeshiva. These institutions, established as the first official religious Zionist yeshivot, were primarily intended to realize various other social and religious aims.

Thus, our focus here will not be on the terms of service arranged between the IDF with the hesder yeshviot but on their far-reaching effect on society, above and beyond the number of soldiers who spent their service there. It was in those early days of the hesder yeshivot that many characteristics of contemporary religious Zionism took root.

A rare study by Mordechai Bar-Lev in 1988, ‘The ‘Hesder Yeshiva‘ as an Agent of Social Change in Israel’ focuses on the social and educational differences between the hesder yeshivot and the haredi yeshivot. Following Bar-Lev, I have explored the social changes initiated by the hesder yeshivot within religious Zionism. Whereas many studies have been conducted about the impact of haredi yeshivot on developments in the haredi community, much less is known about the corresponding influence of the hesder yeshivot on religious Zionism.

By the time the first hesder yeshivot were established, another important religious Zionist yeshiva, yeshivat Merkaz Ha’Rav, known as Merkaz was already in existence. The relationship between Merkaz and the new hesder yeshivot was complicated. On the one hand, many of the rabbis of the hesder yeshivot felt an affinity for to Merkaz and its rabbis, especially to the writings of its founder, R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook, and on the other hand, the hesder yeshivot were seen as competitors. Students would transfer from one to the other since each had its own advantages: Merkaz had the prestige of an older institution with the leadership of famous rabbis, particularly R. Zvi Yehuda Kook; the hesder yeshivot represented a new generation of yeshivot, more modern in spirit. One obvious difference between the two was the inclusion of army service in the hesder yeshivot while at Merkaz, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook did not encourage students to serve in the army. They are the characteristic subgroups of religious Zionism.

During the years under discussion however, the hesder yeshivot represented the larger group. Twenty-five years after the establishment of the first hesder yeshiva in 1977, there were more than 1,700 students at 10 hesder yeshivot, while Merkaz had an enrollment of around 200 students. Despite the high standing of Merkaz in religious Zionism and the prominence of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, the majority of students were enrolled in the hesder yeshivot and their influence on religious Zionism was strongly felt.

The establishment of the hesder yeshivot affected the social life of religious Zionists in various, perhaps surprising ways. For instance, gender roles in religious Zionism were also influenced, as the hesder yeshivot were involved in the establishment of equivalent institutions for women. In some cases, the involvement was direct, as with Migdal Oz, a yeshiva for women established by yeshivat Har Etzion led by the daughter of R. Aaron Lichtenstein, the head of Har Etzion. However, the main influence of the hesder yeshivot was that learning there became a popular choice for religious Zionist youth upon graduating from high-school, and female graduates following suit.

Another influence was the relationship established by hesder yeshivot with Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora who sent students to study in there. This involved senior leaders of the religious Zionist movement with the yeshivot in several important ways. It strengthened ties with religious Zionist organizations and Jewish communities abroad, and provided the hesder yeshivot with tuition fees for the growing number of overseas students who in turn influenced the development of modern Orthodoxy, particularly in the US.

However, the most important influence of the hesder yeshivot on the social life of religious Zionists was the crystallization of religious Zionism as a distinct movement. The first four largest and most influential hesder yeshivot were established between 1953 and 1968. The main stages of their development are illustrative of the changes that occurred in religious Zionism.

During these early decades, major transformations took place in Israeli society. The breakup of traditional leadership and the growing power of sub-groups and sectors like the Sephardic Jews, immigrants and religious Zionists bolstered their self-identification and social status. Shmuel Eisenstadt designates the 1970s as the climax of this process with the historic rise of the right wing in the 1977 election in the wake of economic recession and the crisis of the Yom Kippur War. The hesder yeshivot played a unique role as agents in this process of social change in religious Zionism.

Strengthening Religion in Religious Zionism

It is not surprising that the establishment of the hesder yeshivot affected the religious identity of religious Zionists. However, it is somewhat surprising that the resultant changes motivated in part by the founders led in turn to significant social developments.

The main change brought about by the hesder yeshivot occurred in the realm of halakhic norms. In 1977 Mordechai Bar-Lev pioneered the study of norms and habits in religious Zionism particularly among graduates of high-school yeshivot. One of Bar-Lev’s main conclusions was that many religious Zionists view religious practice as governed by Jewish law, while in other spheres, like culture, for example, they do not follow the strict rules of Halachah. An instance of this is the high percentage of high-school yeshivot graduates who observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat although 58% of them swim at mixed-gender beaches and swimming pools, even though it is halachically forbidden. Yet nevertheless, Bar-Lev found, a fundamental difference exists between high-school yeshivot graduates who did not continue to yeshiva and those who attended hesder yeshivot or other post-high-school yeshivot. The latter followed halakhah more strictly in all areas of life.

A famous example for the change in halakhic observance also mentioned by Bar-Lev, is the mixed-gender dancing in the Religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement which created tensions and conflicts between Bnei Akiva members and their friends at the hesder yeshivot. The yeshiva students demanded that they abolish their halakhically forbidden practice, but the Bnei Akiva members rejected this attempted change to their movement. Ultimately, the yeshiva students won, and mixed-gender dancing is no longer common in Bnei Akiva. Thus, high school graduates at hesder yeshivot changed their own halachic norms and also influenced their surroundings.

Another aspect of this process was the significant change in the status of religious Zionist rabbis. One of the motivations for establishing hesder yeshivot had been to train a new generation of religious Zionist rabbis. This goal was reached as graduates of hesder yeshivot began to fill many rabbinic and educational positions formerly held by haredi rabbis. However, the result of this process went even further. The rabbis of the hesder yeshivot became involved in politics, since politicians often requested their support and advice. Seeking the advice of a rabbi, once customary in haredi and Hasidic society, in particular, has become commonplace in religious Zionism. An expression of how wide-ranging the phenomenon is can be found in Yoske Achituv’s argument that religious Zionism has subordinated individual freedom to charismatic rabbis.

Whether or not Achituv’s argument is extreme, it reveals the fundamental change that transpired in religious Zionism. R. Meir Bar-Ilan, a leading founder of religious Zionism, spoke of the movements defiance of traditional rabbinic leadership which was opposed to Zionism in its early days: ‘We left our rabbis and moved to the land of Israel.’ When a society whose founding narrative was disobedience to rabbis is accused of being overly subjected to rabbinic authority, a deep change has clearly occurred.

The hesder yeshivot played a key role in this process of this change. First, they trained and created a large cadre of religious Zionist rabbis. Second, the rabbis of the hesder yeshivot became dominant figures in religious Zionism and Israeli society at large, creating the model of the influential religious Zionist rabbi. The reinforcement of religious values raised the status of religious Zionist rabbis as well: when people are stricter in their observance of halakhah, rabbis become more necessary, and when Torah learning becomes more important, rabbis are more fully appreciated.

This process of change, although it did not occur at every level, influenced many members of the movement and was also the basis for significant social changes.

Building a Society

The more aware religious Zionists became of their religious identity the more closely they identified with their movement and its shared values. The leaders and rabbis who established the religious Zionist yeshivot aimed at enhancing halakhic observance, and this affected the strength and stability of their followers. As a religious community, they identified more strongly with their group due to the strengthening of religious values. Although social change may not have been the goal of the religious change, it was its direct result.

Furthermore, the leaders and rabbis of the hesder yeshivot strengthened the distinct religious Zionist identity and religious Zionist values of their followers. For example, they invested the Zionist commitment of students to serve in the IDF and settle the land with a religious sanctity that became an important element of their identity as religious Zionists. The hesder yeshivot promoted the status of the religious Zionist values in society as a whole, and that strengthened the bond of religious Zionists to their group.

Another result of the changes to religious Zionism was the creation of clearer demarcations. Mordechai Bar-Lev determined that students of hesder yeshivot became more religiously observant and less involved in secular society and culture. This process created new separate religious Zionist spheres. For example, some religious Zionists stopped using mixed-gender swimming pools and beaches and opened their own swimming pools and beaches. It was another step, however small, towards the social segregation of religious Zionists. Similarly, hesder students, as part of their arrangement with the army, served in units of their own due to various religious requirements. This was a more serious step, since even in the army, the ‘melting pot’ of Israeli society, religious Zionists separated themselves from the rest of society. Some consider this segregation process as negative because it diminishes social solidarity, although as a group, religious Zionists have been fortified by the building of stronger and higher fences.

Fences helped block the disbanding of religious Zionists. As fewer graduates of the religious Zionist educational system opted for secularism, religious Zionism retained more members who identified with its values. Moreover, the fences helped cement a more circumscribed society with strongly self-identified members. Drawing lines between one group and another is necessary in building a society, and the stricter observance of halakhah helped distinguish religious Zionists from other sectors of Israeli society.

A similar process occurred as religious Zionists became more distinct from the haredim. In 1976, R. Yehuda Amital, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, asserted that feelings of inferiority towards haredi society were once common among religious Zionists, although he claimed that this was no longer the case. The haredim were considered to be the ‘real’ religious people, more committed to Torah under the dominant rabbinic leadership. The hesder yeshivot had changed that reality, as religious Zionists now also had their own yeshivot and their own rabbis, who represented and expressed their values.

One reason for the establishment of the first hesder yeshiva was the fact that high-school graduates often fell away from religious Zionism and joined the haredi community. The hesder yeshivot changed this, partly because religious Zionist high school graduates now had their own yeshivot to attend; and more importantly, they could now feel proud of being members of a strong and independent group, with nothing to be ashamed of vis-à-vis the haredim. These feelings reinforced their self-identity and further distanced them from haredi society.

Self-determination, distinct fences, and identification with religious Zionism engendered feelings of self-confidence and pride in the group. As a result, religious Zionists seized the opportunity to involve themselves in projects with a strong impact on Israeli society, like the settlement movement.

Researchers regard the Yom Kippur War as the turning point for religious Zionists who felt they needed to step in and fill the void created by a growing sense of national crisis. Had they perceived themselves as a weak and inadequate group, they would have felt incapable of doing so. The founders of the first religious Zionist party, founded in 1902, named it ‘Mizrachi’, Hebrew acronym for ‘spiritual center’, as they had aspired to influence the whole of the Zionist movement. However, it was not until the hesder yeshivot generated the above religious and social changes that the hope was realized.

The process involved in these changes follow several sociological theories, particularly social identity theory. Tajfel and Turner define social identity as “those aspects of an individual’s self-image that derive from the social categories to which he perceives himself as belonging”. A deep level of self-identification by individuals “with the relevant in-group” is essential for the group to function. When members are unable to achieve and maintain a positive social identity, they either leave the group or try to differentiate it from other groups in order to “achieve superiority over an out-group on some dimension.” These elements of social identity theory are clearly applicable to the processes which were generated by the establishment of the hesder yeshivot. The building of a strong religious Zionist society required the strengthening of self-identification, as the hesder yeshivot found. Part of this process also required their differentiation from other groups. On the basis of this society building process came the next step in the seeking for positions of power in society.

The development of religious Zionist society in Israel with the establishment of the hesder yeshivat is traceable through these afore-mentioned steps: the deepening of group identification; differentiation from other Israeli sectors; the consolidation of the group’s social status and its rise to positions of influence and leadership. These steps are apparent in the history of the first four hesder yeshivot.

Kerem B’yavne—The Strengthening of Religious Zionist Identity

In 1953, a small group of graduates from the high school yeshiva in Kefar Haroe arrived in Yavne to establish the first hesder yeshiva, known as Kerem B’Yavne (KBY). The choice of Yavne, a small religious Zionist kibbutz, as the location for this yeshiva was not accidental. The land for the new yeshiva was purchased by the Jewish National Fund in 1940, in concert with the Mizrachi movement. Construction on the building began shortly thereafter, but WW II and the Israeli War of Independence delayed the actual opening of the yeshiva till 1954.

The idea for Kerem B’Yavne had first been suggested in 1913 by R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook. The name Kerem B’Yavne (KBY) was chosen as a reference to the Talmudic story of a Torah institution by that name founded by Raban Yochanan Ben Zakai after the destruction of the Second Temple, to signify the rebuilding of Jewish life and Torah learning in Israel. These ideas were taken up as part of the founding narrative of KBY, the need to establish hesder yeshivot as well as haredi yeshivot after the destruction of Jewish life during the Holocaust, with the added aspiration of creating a new type of religious Zionist yeshiva.

The need for this type of yeshiva found expression in the surprising choice of KBY’s first head of the yeshiva [in Hebrew, rosh yeshiva] R. Chaim Goldwicht, a great scholar but also a close follower of Chazon Ish, the most prominent haredi leader in Israel at the time. R. Goldwicht was not KBY’s first choice, but religious Zionist rabbis like R. Shaul Yisraeli and R. Moshe Zvi Neryia, could not accept the position because of prior commitments, and as R. Chaim Drukman claimed in 1955, other religious Zionist rabbis refused the job offer because of Yavne’s location, far from any city with a large religious community.

The difficulty involved in finding a rosh yeshiva for the first religious Zionist yeshiva was actually part of the reason for its establishment. The lack of rabbinic leadership in religious Zionism encouraged the political leaders of Mizrachi to become involved in the creation of a yeshiva that would train a new generation of religious Zionist rabbis. The need for this was primarily practical, to fill rabbinic positions in religious Zionist communities and to provide educators for their educational institutions. However, the desire to have their own religious leadership as opposed to haredi rabbis was also part of a larger social process of self-determination.

Another reason for the establishment of KBY was the need for an appropriate yeshiva for religious Zionist high school graduates. The call for the creation of a religious Zionist yeshiva came from Bnei Akiva, the main religious Zionist youth movement which played an important role in the establishment of KBY. Before KBY existed, a religious Zionist high-school graduate who wished to learn in yeshiva entered a haredi yeshiva, the only existing option. Some of these students felt uncomfortable in a yeshiva which was culturally and ideologically foreign to them. Those who felt comfortable at haredi yeshivot eventually assimilated to haredi society. Harsh articles in Ze’Raim, the Bnei Akiva’s journal, expressed the disappointment of some members with friends who went to haredi yeshivot and forsook the religious Zionist way of life. The demand of Bnei Akiva members for a solution resulted in the establishment of KBY.

The establishment of KBY and the reasons behind it testify to the process of self-determination in religious Zionism. Religious Zionists felt they needed to have their own rabbis and yeshivot. The building of religious Zionist society arose out of a sense of belonging to a distinct group that could not rely on other religious groups but required its own religious leadership and institutions.

The establishment of KBY aroused arguments about the teaching methodology of the new yeshiva. R. Goldwicht made his position very clear: Kerem B’Yavne students would follow the Lithuanian study methods in the yeshivot of “Slobodka, Telz and Bnei Brak” notwithstanding their religious Zionist orientation. They would have to leave their religious Zionist culture outside the walls of KBY. In practical terms, this meant following the curriculum studied at haredi yeshivot: a near-absolute focus on Talmud learning, in the traditional Lithuanian style, and very few additional subjects.

Goldwicht’s view faced opposition from the founders of KBY, Bnei Akiva and World Mizrachi, who demanded changes. In 1956, the national board meeting of Bnei Akiva demanded that KBY expand the curriculum to include Tanach and Musar, and discussions and debates on contemporary issues. The speakers at this meeting voiced their expectation that the first yeshivaestablished by Bnei Akiva would be different from the haredi yeshivot. R. Chaim Drukman who was involved in establishing KBY, expressed a similar argument in his 1955 article in Zra’im—the Bnei Akiva journal: “The Bnei Akiva yeshivashould create an original path in order to educate pioneer Torah scholars.”

The arguments between R. Goldwicht and the other founders of KBY represent different viewpoints about the significance of the first religious Zionist yeshiva. While Rav Goldwicht believed it should be an institution for religious Zionists to study Torah and nothing more, other founders wished to create a new type of yeshiva with unique religious Zionist characteristics. It was not only intended as a place where religious Zionists could identify themselves as an independent sector, with their own yeshivot and rabbinic leadership, but also as a place that would open up new pathways in Torah study. These feelings prompted the establishment of KBY, and as more and more hesder yeshivot came into existence the process of self-identification was advanced and helped to shape a new generation of religious Zionists.

KBY grew fast: In 1957 it had an enrollment of 53 students and twenty years later, it was the biggest hesder yeshiva with an enrollment of 320. Its status as the leading hesder yeshiva was strengthened after the Six-Day War when KBY students were sent to found a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, yeshivat haKotel (in Hebrew: the yeshiva of the Western Wall). Many KBY innovations were later implemented in other yeshivot, like the Kollel program for married students and the rabbinic training program. The arrangement KBY made with the IDF became the status quo for all hesder yeshivot and is even referred to as “the KBY arrangement” in official military documents. This is why KBY could claim to be “the mother of all hesder yeshivot” as it often called.

Yeshivat Sha’alavim: Separation From Haredi Society

The differentiation of religious Zionism from haredi society in Israel was thus an extremely important step in the strengthening of religious Zionist identity, as illustrated by the hesder yeshiva that was founded next, yeshivat Sha’alavim.

Yeshivat Sha’alavim was established in 1961 by the Poalei Agudat Yisrael (Pagi) party and the Ezra youth movement, affiliated with Pagi. Both organizations were identified with haredi society at that time, but they also had a unique connection to Zionism. Yeshivat Sha’alavim was established on Kibbutz Sha’alavim, a religious kibbutz identified with Pagi, in response to the demands of Ezra for a new type of yeshiva. Some Ezra members who went to haredi yeshivot had left the movement and rejected its doctrines just as happened in KBY and Bnei Akiva, but the Ezra members considered KBY too modern so they wanted a different type of yeshiva.

The first rosh yeshiva was R. Meir Schlesinger, who was also the rabbi of Kibbutz Sha’alavim. He was a follower of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, both important haredi leaders and took great pride in the connection between his yeshiva and the haredi leadership, who would sometimes participate in major events at the yeshiva. R. Schlesinger called this his pluralistic educational attitude. He wanted yeshivat Sha’alavim to function as a bridge between the haredi community and Israeli society, a bridge he felt was needed by both. He claimed that this position justified the existence of the yeshiva, and that otherwise, it would simply merge in time with the haredi yeshivot. However, just the opposite occurred, and yeshivat Sha’alavim eventually became fully identified with religious Zionism.

The army service of the yeshiva students was a source of discord with haredi leaders. At first the students of yeshivat Sha’alavim were stationed at the yeshiva itself, and trained to protect the area, which was on what at the time was the tense border between Israel and Jordan. After the Six-Day War in 1967 however, Israel’s borders changed so that there was no further need to guard the area, and students could serve in regular army units in accordance with the KBY arrangement.

During its first years, yeshivat Sha’alavim was under the auspices of va’ad ha yeshivot—the Council of Yeshivot—as the only yeshiva with students who officially served in the IDF. This situation was very problematic for the haredi leadership, who were afraid the army might pressure them to recruit their students, too. They also feared competition with the attractive new yeshiva, as some students had already left haredi yeshivot to join it.

Over the years the tension and fear of competition dissipated. Many among the first generation of students at yeshivat Sha’alavim came from haredi backgrounds, and some even wore traditional haredi clothing. Later on, mostly after 1967, when yeshivat Sha’alavim joined the KBY agreement, students came solely from religious Zionist high-school yeshivot. R. Schlesinger remarked in an interview that the haredi rabbis said they were not afraid of him anymore because he was no longer ‘dangerous’, no longer competing with them for students.

The shifting of yeshivat Sha’alavim towards religious Zionism reflected yet another and greater change in Israeli society, the separation between haredi society and religious Zionism, as sharper differences and clearer boundaries emerged. As a result, the ‘grey zones’ disappear and it became necessary to pick sides. This process also affected the founding organizations of yeshivat Sh’alavim. Over the years, Ezra became identified with religious Zionism, and Pagi eventually ceased to exist as an active movement.

This process of separation between the main religious sectors in Israel during the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century has been widely discussed by many researchers. Benjamin Brown defined it as a dramatic change in the history of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, which divided into two main streams. The history of yeshivat Sha’alavim and the changes it underwent express this process. Moreover, the establishment of the hesder yeshivot and the changes they brought to religious Zionism furthered this process.

This is the flip side of the self-determination process in religious Zionism, which distances these sectors from each other, both socially and ideologically. When religious Zionists strengthened their unique identification, and especially its religious elements, it affected their connection to the Haredim. The strengthening of religious Zionist values clarified and sharpened the differences between the sectors. Now that religious Zionists had their own yeshivot, their own rabbis and a feeling of belonging to a strong and independent sector, it loosened their relations with the haredim. The story of yeshivat Sha’alavim and the changes in its connections with the haredi society illustrate this process.

Hesder Yeshivot in the Settlements: Taking Positions of Power and Influence

The next step in the social process in religious Zionism is when religious Zionists got involved in projects with influence on the entire Israeli society. The main example is the deep involvement of religious Zionists in the settlement movement, with important role of the hesder yeshivot in that movement.

The next two hesder yeshivot were founded in 1967, in territories captured during the Six-Day War. Yeshivat Har Etzion was established in the settlement cluster of Gush Etzion, and yeshivat HaKotel was established in the Old City of Jerusalem. Although the two are very different, our focus here will be on their shared characteristic: their role in the settlement movement.

The Gush Etzion area had been captured by the Jordanians during the War of Independence in 1948, and after the Six-Day War, some of its former residents pushed for resettlement. One of these was Moshe Moshkovich (Moshko), who vowed to open a yeshiva immediately after the war. In collaboration with other organizations, including Bnei Akiva, the yeshiva was officially established in July of 1968.

The determination to rebuild Gush Etzion took root in the early days of yeshivat Har Etzion. One of the students there describing his first day at the yeshiva quoted a talk given by Rav Hanan Porat, another former resident of Gush Etzion who was very active in the rebuilding of the area and later became a leader of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful, a right-wing activist group): “The mountains of Hebron deserve the voice of the Torah to be heard on them.” The student added in his diary: “may we not disappoint.” Yeshivat Har Etzion developed under the leadership of two rabbis who both bore the title of rosh yeshiva. R. Yehuda Amital served as its rosh yeshiva from the first day. Initially he was considered an ideological leader of the settlement movement, but after voicing criticism of government actions during the First Lebanon War in 1982 and proposing a pragmatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he came to represent a form of left-wing religious Zionism. The other rabbi, R. Aaron Lichtenstein arrived at yeshivat Har Etzion from the US a few years after its founding. The son-in-law of R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the noted American Orthodox rabbi, R. Lichtenstein had a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University. Though he taught according to the Lithuanian method he developed a style all his own.

Yeshivat Har Etzion grew swiftly, from 36 high-school yeshiva recruits in 1968, to 115 three years later, and 300 in 1973. Yeshivat Har Etzion contributed to the development of the future hesder yeshivot in many ways. In 1973 it opened an academic teacher training program which later evolved into a large college. After that similar programs were instituted in most of the hesder yeshivot. In addition, yeshivat Har Etzion developed a unique approach to the study of Tanakh, combining modern literary criticism with traditional methods. This aroused strong resistance among some of the religious Zionist rabbis and heads of yeshivot but was popular with others.

Just as the return to Gush Etzion hastened the founding of yeshivat Har Etzion, so too the renewal of Jewish settlement within the Old City of Jerusalem after the Six Day War impelled the building of yeshivat HaKotel, officially established that year on Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple. The choice of this time and the location near the Western Wall emphasized the rebuilding of the holy city as the founding narrative of the new yeshiva, as did the name of the given to the new yeshivayeshivat HaKotel, the yeshiva of the Western Wall.

The first group to arrive at the opening of the new yeshiva were supporters from KBY. A decade later, student enrollment had grown to 250. Bnei Akiva had been involved in the establishment of other hesder yeshivot, but yeshivat Hakotel was the first hesderyeshiva officially under the umbrella of Bnei Akiva’s educational organization, which until that point had included only high-school yeshivot.

The first head of yeshivat Hakotel was R. Yeshayahu Hadari. R. Hadari was a unique Torah scholar who had taught in KBY and was involved in the creation of KBY’s arrangement with the army. He was a graduate of the Hebron harediyeshiva, but had a close relationship with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook. R. Hadari defined the character of yeshivat Hakotel where he served for thirty years until his passing in 2018.

The students of yeshivat Hakotel were among the first Jews to settle in the Old City after the Six-Day War. The official reason given for the establishment of the yeshiva by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, had been the need to have armed young people guarding the Old City. During the early years, students lived under harsh conditions, and throughout their first months at the yeshiva did without home leave so as not to leave the Jewish Quarter unguarded.

The stories of yeshivat Har Etzion and yeshivat Hakotel reflect many controversies which later vexed the settlement movement. For example, they were accused of stretching of the law. As mentioned, the official permit to establish the yeshiva was given by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan because students were needed to guard the Old City, but the permit stipulated twenty armed men, whereas the number of students at the yeshiva quickly grew beyond that number.

In addition, many of the legal and moral conflicts which were later involved in the founding of the settlements are evident in the process of establishing yeshivat Har Etzion. For example, the government had allocated lands to build yeshivat Har Etizon and Alon Shvut, which required the expropriation of Palestinian fields and payment of compensation to the owners. This move was strongly criticized in Israel and abroad, and led the government to minimize publicity about the implementation of the decision. Another conflict arose when the government delayed final permission to move the yeshiva to its permanent location in Alon Shvut. The rabbis and students of the yeshiva debated whether to wait for permission or to move ahead and present the government with a fait accompli, the yeshiva built on allocated land. R. Amital opposed this idea and barred the other rabbis and students from doing so. Similar discussions about how much to cooperate with the government took place later in many settlements.

These examples manifest the importance of hesder yeshivot in the settlement movement, as the precursors of Gush Emunim, which was not officially organized until 1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The relationship between the hesder yeshivot and Gush Emunim was complex. On the one hand, many of the hesder students took part in Gush Emunim activities, and there were some hesder rabbis in the Gush Emunim leadership. On the other hand, many rabbis were strictly opposed to the ideology and strategy of Gush Emunim. R. Amital, R. Lichtenstein and R. Schlesinger described the actions of Gush Emunim as aggressive, and opposed the priority Gush Emunim gave to settlements over other values.

Thus, the hesder yeshivot and their leaders were not the founding fathers of Gush Emunim, but represented an entirely different sub-sector of Religious Zionism. Nevertheless, the hesder yeshivot did participate in the establishment of settlements and paved the way for the future settlement movement. The location of their yeshivot was not accidental but represented an ideological stance, as the settling of the Land of Israel and the West Bank in particular, was an important value for the hesder yeshivot, albeit in a way than different from that of Gush Emunim.

The establishment of the settlements is a mission of major importance for religious Zionists, exerting a great influence on Israeli society. At the same time, it is also one of their most controversial projects. It has led to an overall change in the status of religious Zionism in Israeli society, as well as a rise to positions of power and influence.

The establishment of KBY represented a process of self-determination among religious Zionists who identified as an independent sector, with their own religious leadership, values and institutions. The other side of this process is the separation of religious Zionism from haredi society, as in the history of yeshivat Sha’alavim. The next step was the establishment of yeshivat Har Etzion and yeshivat Hakotel, and the involvement of religious Zionists in the settlement movement. The growing self-confidence of religious Zionists and their belief in their group and its values led them to raise their ambitions. They now sought to lead society in the direction they believed was right, and to influence the entire country through their actions.


The story of the first four hesder yeshivot illustrates the changes that have taken place in religious Zionism and the great impact of the hesder yeshivot on the internal processes of change. It reflects the power of educational institutions and religious movements to generate social changes. The hesder yeshivot are significant not only in view of their special agreement with the army but also due to their considerable social influence.

There have been further developments and changes in religious Zionism since the period discussed. Naturally, some tendencies have been furthered while others have taken religious Zionism in different directions. Many of these developments evolved in the hesder yeshivot and other religious Zionist yeshivot.

One development has been the creation of the hardal groups in religious Zionism. Hardal is a Hebrew acronym for haredei dati leumi (haredi religious nationalist), characterized by stringent observance of halakhah, and strict segregation from secular culture. This is a continuation of the processes discussed here, with the changes to halakhic norms brought about by the hesder yeshivot. However, hardal refers also to a change of direction in these groups, in compare with the hesder yeshivot, in their haredi leanings. It also manifests in actual collaboration with haredim, for example, in their admiration of haredi rabbinic leadership, or the adoption of typical haredi characteristics, such as the spurning of academia.

Anshel Pfefer claims that the yeshivot are replacing political parties as the leading institutions of the hardal society. The different hardal groups are separated by their identification with various yeshivot, for instance, people affiliated with Merkaz belong to a different subgroup from those affiliated with yeshivat Sha’avei Hevron. Most of the yeshivot are not identified with the hesder yeshivot, but to Merkaz and other yeshivot which evolved from it. However, the religious changes engendered by hesder yeshivot, as noted, created a basis for the development of the hardal movement in religious Zionism.

Another important development is the growth of the hesder yeshivot, reflecting an even deeper change with the opening of yeshivot to various sub-groups. Some yeshivot recruit graduates of religious high schools who did not traditionally choose to enter hesder yeshivot, and some changes have also been implemented in terms of curriculum and the length of army service in order to fit the needs of a new type of student.

This change represents an actual resolution to an old question: who is the most suitable student for the hesder yeshivot? Some of the founders claim that only qualified students should be accepted in order to maintain a high level of scholarship and also to train rabbis. Others claim that in order to have a wide influence in society, the hesder yeshivot should be open to everyone. The adoption of a non-elitist approach changed the character of the typical hesder student, and as a result, some of the changes discussed are less relevant, for example, distance from secular culture.

In conclusion, the importance of the yeshivot in relation to social changes in religious Zionism merits further exploration. Obviously, not every social change is related to the yeshivot, but in many cases, an in-depth exploration of the yeshivot and developing the ability to distinguish fine differences among the various yeshivot will contributes much to a better understanding of what is taking place in religious Zionism today.