Ultra-Orthodox IDF servicemen in some neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh will no longer be required to wear uniforms when returning home on leave, according to reports in the Hebrew media.
Such soldiers are often subject to harassment and verbal abuse by anti-Zionist extremists who live in the area. The army’s decision to provide a blanket exemption formalizes and expands the de facto reality in many of the city’s haredi neighborhoods, where soldiers with individual permission to don civilian garb hide their service from neighbors.
In response to the announcement, city councilman Moshe Shitrit (Likud) announced that he would organize a march of uniformed reservists through Beit Shemesh’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods sometime in the coming days.
Shitrit said that the purpose of the march would be to “support our friends who joined the army in that community” and to push back against those who “oppose soldiers [and] can’t deal with Jewish military uniforms.”
“We will march in our uniforms, and if someone finds that offensive, he can pack his belongings and find another country,” he said.
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, a resident of the city, may march as well. He told The Jerusalem Post that he may wear his uniform as a civilian volunteer with the Border Police. “I don’t have the specifics, but any taunting of soldiers in uniform cannot be tolerated,” he said. “We are called ‘Jews’ because [the matriarch] Leah gave thanks when she named her son ‘Yehuda’ [Judah], and these extremists not showing basic gratitude to the soldiers who defend them demonstrates that they have lost this most basic element of Judaism. I believe the march is a proper response to demonstrate the pride of those who serve in the Israeli army and to specifically strengthen and support haredi soldiers.”
Beit Shemesh has been quiet lately, with none of the headline- grabbing attacks against women or soldiers that have occurred recent years, but many soldiers from the haredi community still complain of lowgrade harassment by extremists.
There are “a lot of curses and spitting and things like that,” Shitrit said.
A police spokesman said that he was not aware of any recent attacks against soldiers in Beit Shemesh.
Testifying before the Knesset last year, Brig.-Gen. Gadi Agmon of the IDF Manpower Directorate said that “we’re seeing efforts to remove haredi soldiers from their neighborhoods, from synagogues and from yeshivot.”
At the hearing, which came during an upswing in haredi violence against soldiers in Jerusalem, it was revealed that despite the many incidents of such harassment, few had been reported to the police.
During 2013, many soldiers complained of harassment, and there were multiple reported cases of enlistees facing physical and verbal violence, including an incident in which a haredi soldier was pulled out of his car and beaten. In another case, several dozen young men set upon a pair of uniformed soldiers walking through Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.
Agmon also complained of posters denouncing ultra-Orthodox soldiers as enemies of Torah. The posters refer to Torah-observant servicemen as “hardakim” – a derogatory Hebrew acronym meaning “weak-minded haredi,” as well as an amalgam of the words “haredi” and “harakim,” or insects.
Such posters still appear in neighborhoods such as Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, with soldiers pictured as emerging from dumpsters to contaminate young ultra-Orthodox boys. These posters also portray secular Jews as the biblical nation of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Israelites, and as Nazi collaborators.
Responding to Shitrit’s plans, haredi Deputy Mayor Shmuel Greenberg said, “There are people here in uniform and everything is okay.”
Greenberg – who lives in the more moderate Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, where uniforms are indeed more common – said he was unfamiliar with the hardakim posters and that he had “not seen anything of the sort.”
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also denied that there was a problem, stating in the Knesset that the Beit Shemesh police had not received any formal complaints.
Mayor Moshe Abutbol condemned Shitrit and stated that he “felt sorry for politicians” who were trying to drag the IDF into local politics.
However, the issue may not be as simple as it appears, according to Rabbi Uri Regev of religious pluralism NGO Hiddush.
Regev said it was hard to gauge the extent of the harassment and anti-IDF sentiment, since most soldiers in the affected neighborhoods had stopped wearing their uniforms a long time ago in response to abuse, thereby decreasing the overall level of violence.
Aharonovitch is acting like an “ostrich,” he said, asserting that giving in to violence and providing a blanket exemption from wearing uniforms constituted a “surrender of the country to the haredi sector that denies the legitimacy of the government and the army.”
According to Hiddush, out of 136 incidents reported to the IDF, only 12 had been reported to the police.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.