Haredi soldiers

Violent attacks on haredi soldiers in uniform are a particularly repugnant expression of opposition to military service.

July 11, 2013 23:43
3 minute read.
Men gathered to pray at the Western Wall

Men at Western Wall 395. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

In the wake of the cabinet’s approval Sunday of the haredi enlistment bill, the mood on the haredi street is particularly combative. Although the bill, if ratified in the Knesset, would mandate obligatory military service for haredi young men only in 2017, the ultra-Orthodox leadership and extremists within the community have chosen to view the move as a casus belli.

Violent attacks on haredi soldiers in uniform are a particularly repugnant expression of opposition to military service. On Tuesday, in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood, a mob converged on one such soldier. They beat him and threw eggs at him until he managed to barricade himself in the office of a relative. Only after police arrived could the young man be extricated. Four haredi youths, one a minor, were arrested for attacking the police.

These are no pacifist conscientious objectors. Thankfully, Judaism is essentially a peaceful religion that pursues peace, due in part to the fact that it has developed over two millennia as the faith of a powerless people. Nevertheless, blind faith that God is on their side makes these zealots particularly dangerous because, for them, the ends justify the means.

Intimidation and social pressures perpetuate a reign of fear within the insular community that serves to enforce uniformity of thought and deed. Families in which a son opts for IDF service fear they will be blackballed by the community. Matchmakers will recommend only the least desirable spouses for marriage; siblings of the soldier will be barred from the most prestigious schools.

And there are other types of intimidation. Just this week in the haredi city of Bnei Brak the owners of a pizzeria that dared to offer discounts to soldiers in uniform backed down to pressure from community leaders.

After years of suffering vilification for his beliefs, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, who helped found the Nahal Haredi/Netzah Yehuda Battalion and served as its spiritual adviser, has announced he had enough. He will withdraw his support for military service for haredi young men. He cited the extremist haredi political leadership’s uncompromising stance as part of the reason.

It should be no surprise that hundreds of haredi soldiers ask for permission to return home from army base in civilian clothing. Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the haredi founder of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization, said his son, who serves in the Golani Brigade, was witness to dozens of haredi soldiers who waited in line for the bathroom on the train back home to change clothes.

Many haredi soldiers have already been disowned fully or partially by their families.

Unless more support is provided to those who enlist in the military and their families, the bill approved this week in the cabinet for government support will never be implemented.

On a grassroots level, some initiatives have been launched to help haredi soldiers. The Jerusalem Institute of Justice provides many haredi soldiers with a home and helps them receive the status of “lone soldier” normally reserved for those serving in the IDF whose families live abroad. Meshi Zahav has spoken publicly against the attacks on the soldiers.

In contrast, the silence of haredi MKs on the matter is a scandal.

Unless state authorities do more to protect haredi soldiers, the haredi enlistment bill will be doomed to failure.

Those responsible for attacks must be brought to justice.

A printing press operating in Jerusalem that prints incendiary public notices (pashkevilim) denouncing haredim who serve in the IDF and incites against them must be closed down.

In parallel, the IDF must provide these soldiers with more support. Permitting them to return home in civilian clothing is not the answer. Soldiers who are disowned by the families should be provided with housing and food when they are off duty. Perhaps these soldiers can be paired with adoptive families. Protection should be provided to soldiers who foresee trouble in their neighborhood if they return home in uniform.

The inner dynamics of the haredi community are such that the zealots have the upper hand and more moderate voices such as Rabbi Schwartz’s are nearly impossible to voice. State authorities, however, can and must do more to provide support to haredi soldiers who serve their country.

Failing to do so will only further complicate the seemingly insurmountable problem of haredi draft-dodging.

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