Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Soldiers Under Fire Aug 11, 2013 20:20:33 GMT -5
Post by shira on Aug 11, 2013 20:20:33 GMT -5
Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Soldiers Under Fire
An off-duty Israeli soldier was walking to visit relatives in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem last month, when suddenly he came under attack. Dozens of local men, incensed over the sight of a strictly religious Jew in uniform, started cursing at the soldier and shoving and beating him. The police had to send special units and anti-riot officers to the scene to rescue the soldier amid a hail of stones and rubbish. The soldier was unharmed, but six men were arrested.
The attack was one of at least three on ultra-Orthodox soldiers in Jerusalem in June, leading law-enforcement authorities to step up patrols in some neighborhoods. Yet another soldier was attacked on Thursday. The embattled servicemen are among the several thousand ultra-Orthodox youth who have enlisted in Israel's armed forces against the wishes of many in their community, known as Haredim. The soldiers have become the target of a campaign of shaming and intimidation, and violence also has played a part.
"A soldier who is returning home from the border, after defending the state with his life, wants to return home safely," said David Zoldan, a former ultra-Orthodox soldier. "But he needs to look backward, forward, all around, [in case] someone is about to ambush him."
The attacks have intensified as Israel's government moves forward with a bill repealing the rule that for more than six decades has exempted the ultra-Orthodox from the military draft. The coalition government formed in late March, which for the first time in many years doesn't include ultra-Orthodox parties, has made it a priority to end entitlements for the burgeoning Haredi population—including the draft exemption, subsidies for men to pursue religious studies rather than work, and support for autonomous elementary schools. Critics of the Haredim see these programs as unfair and economically unviable, and they worry about the growing divide in Israeli society between the ultra-Orthodox and more modern Jewish Israelis.
Many ultra-Orthodox hard-liners fear that army service will expose members of their cloistered community to various modern temptations, threatening their religious way of life. "The ultra-Orthodox see themselves in a war for their existence. In existential wars, you don't exactly behave according to normal rules,'' said Shimon Breitkopf, the editor of Ba'Mishpacha, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper. "People feel like they are in a bunker."
The tension is sharpest in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. Here, many ultra-Orthodox hard-liners view secular Jewish nationalism and the Israeli government as anathema to their religious world view. Posters denounce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describe Israel's government as "gentile" and rail against Haredi soldiers. The goal of the effort is to deter other ultra-Orthodox youth from enlisting.
"We need to show our children [who serve] that they are second class and not first class," said Shimon Weiss, who wore a black striped gown typical of the Haredi sects on a blazing recent afternoon in Mea Shearim. Mr. Weiss added that he sympathized with the impulse to verbally harass the soldiers, saying: "When a person is hurting, they yell."
The campaign has spread beyond Mea Shearim. One recently discharged Haredi soldier who advises prospective recruits recalled walking in April through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood nearby while in uniform, when five youths charged him and a soldier friend and told them to get out of the neighborhood. "We were afraid that they would beat us up, and we fled," said the man, who also said that his parents opposed enlistment.
The ultra-Orthodox place great value on religious scholarship and believe that Torah study plays a role in protecting the Jewish people. Following Israel's establishment in 1948, they were allowed to forego military service in favor of religious studies. At the time, the decision affected only a few hundred people. But as of 2009, the ultra-Orthodox made up about 10% of Israel's 7.5 million people. Today, some 80,000 ultra-Orthodox of military age are exempt from service, parliament member Nissim Slomiansky told Israel Radio.
The government-sponsored bill—nicknamed the "sharing the burden law"—would phase out automatic draft exemptions over several years for all but about 1,800 gifted yeshiva students.
Annual military enlistment by ultra-Orthodox men has gone up by seven fold in the last five years. Now there are about 3,000 serving, according to the Israeli army spokesman's unit. That is partly because the army has set up an exclusively ultra-Orthodox infantry unit, providing soldiers with strictly kosher food and ensuring that they are allowed to follow the Haredi custom that forbids unmarried men from socializing with women.
The majority of the ultra-Orthodox combat soldiers serve in this all-Haredi battalion, Netzach Yehuda, which has units stationed in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley and the region around the Palestinian city of Jenin. Their main role is to keep a lid on Palestinian militants by arresting wanted activists and by seizing funds believed to aid militants.
Those who enlist have long risked social alienation. Haredi soldiers have been shunned in their own homes and communities, told not to wear uniforms home or banished altogether.
The estrangement went public this summer, as the draft law cleared a parliamentary committee and advanced toward a final vote. A newly coined Hebrew nickname by the ultra-Orthodox, "hardakim"—a combination of Haredim and kal dat, or frivolous—likens the soldiers to germs who threaten their community's Jewish character. (Hardak sounds like the Hebrew word for germ, haidak.)
In recent weeks, posters appeared on walls in Mea Shearim soliciting cartoons denouncing Haredi soldiers. A poster bearing a red ribbon and a "first prize" label soon materialized, depicting Haredi soldiers emerging from tanks and chasing ultra-Orthodox children, who sobbed: "The Hardakim are destroying us for our entire lives."
No one has come forward to admit to organizing the campaign. The silence of the community's spiritual leaders on the subject implies consent, said Mr. Breitkopf of Ba'Mishpacha. A spokesperson for Yisrael Eichler, a parliament member from a leading ultra-Orthodox political party, said that Mr. Eichler had condemned the attacks on the soldiers but declined to respond to allegations about the silence of the rabbis.
The rancor over the soldiers suggests that bigger troubles could be ahead if Israel's government passes legislation that would force integration of the Haredim. "Those who caution against forcing a showdown are right in theory but wrong in practice. We have no choice but to go through an ugly showdown, after which we can begin negotiating with the Haredi community,'' said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "But the explosion has to come first."
A version of this article appeared August 10, 2013, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A New Israeli Battlefront.