The scene is upsetting, if not downright disturbing.

Groups of young Jewish children parade through the streets in handcuffs and wearing signs that say, “Father! Mother! Save me.”

A banner strung across the intersection reads: “Our children are more beloved to us than anything, and they will not be the Cantonists of the government.”

Is this Czarist Russia? Actually, no. It is the State of Israel and it happened on Monday in Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square in Mea She’arim.

These children were “encouraged” (read “forced”) to take part in a demonstration against conscription into the army.

At a time when the Jewish people need to pursue unity, when all of Israel’s citizens must fight together to defend the country, extremist elements are inciting their youth to hate.

At the time (things change quickly in this country), it seemed almost inevitable that the government would adopt a new law that would require haredi military service.

The hard-line Eda Haredit organization arranged a demonstration against haredi enlistment and issued a “holy call to all children studying in the halls of the rabbis to express loudly the pain of haredi Jews in Israel and abroad.” The banner of the protest was “Her young children have been taken into captivity before the adversary,” an extract from the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha Be’av.

As reported in this newspaper, according to Rabbi Avraham Eizenstein, one of the protest organizers, more than 5,000 children were present at the demonstration.

“We want this cry to go up to God so he will hear our wailing and save us,” Eizenstein said. “We are bound only by the instructions of our rabbis and we received instructions from our rabbis that children should be handcuffed together and this is what we’ve done.”

The banner referencing the Cantonists is telling. In 1827, Czar Nicholas I introduced what became known as the Cantonist Decrees. These decrees called for the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian Army. Henceforth, Jews were subject to compulsory military duty. Males between the ages of 12 and 25 were often forced to serve for up to 25 years. During their army service, many converted to Christianity, many died and most never returned home.

Comparing the Cantonist Decrees back then to the Israeli government’s attempt now to replace the “Tal Law” is a bit of a stretch. Czar Nicholas was an anti-Semite and used the Jews as scapegoats for his country’s numerous problems. The haredim can hardly be blamed as the source of all of Israel’s current problems, and the effort to force them to serve the country in some capacity – not necessarily military – should not be misunderstood.

Ours is a Jewish state surrounded by enemies who care little for our well-being and wish to see us leave the neighborhood. The need to defend our land should be as important now as it was 3,500 years ago when Moses instructed the Jewish nation to take up arms and fight the enemy.

It was George Orwell who once said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Hardly all “rough men,” ours is a conscription army, and therefore many soldiers are our kindhearted fathers, brothers and sons, working hard to preserve the Jewish nation’s historic presence in the Land of Israel.

The Eda Haredit has it wrong. Its members may believe that the state embodies evil, but it is wrong to indoctrinate, to brainwash the next generation into thinking that “Zionists are not Jews,” as placards at haredi demonstrations often declare.

The Eda’s animosity towards the State, and hence the Jews, secular and religious, who are currently involved in running the state, is reprehensible.

It is pure sinat hinam (baseless hatred).

And today, with just over a week left before Tisha Be’av, the day of mourning for the two Temples, one of which was destroyed on the basis that Jews were guilty of sinat hinam, one would assume that the Eda Haredit, a self-proclaimed pious, religious group, would be leading the cause for unity.

Instead, it is creating discord. It is encouraging animosity. It is teaching hatred. It is brainwashing the next generation to hate fellow Jews, thus ensuring an even further delay of the Messiah’s arrival. (Many Jews believe the Messiah will come only when sinat hinam disappears.) The Eda’s self-marginalization is destructive and its policies and actions cause great hillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name.

In a meeting with President Shimon Peres on Sunday, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called for unity.

“We have many common goals,” he said, emphasizing that the three-week period between Shiva-Asar Betamuz and Tisha Be’av was an opportune time for reconciliation.

Yet, it is not only the Eda that makes outrageous public statements.

Despite Amar’s and Peres’s calls for moderation in the tone of the debate, it was Amar who, after a minor earthquake occurred here last week, said that it was “caused by persecution of haredi men who avoid military service.”

The issue of incitement is real. Last Saturday night, spiritual leader of the Shas political movement Rabbi Ovadia Yosef prayed that God protect all yeshiva students and said that those trying to draft them “have no faith and are heretics.”

But this week’s Torah portion specifically quotes Moses as saying to the tribes of Gad and Reuben in response to their request to remain on the east side of the Jordan and be excused from fighting for the Land of Israel: “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here?” (Numbers 32:6).

If it was okay for the Jews to be forced to serve their people then, is it not okay now? Like then, elements of the Jewish nation are today attempting to be excused from national service. But unfortunately, the nation of Israel no longer has a Moses to lead it.

One of the main tenets of Judaism is to “teach your children.” It is difficult to believe that the commandment refers to indoctrinating young children to hate their fellow Jews.

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