This past weekend I read an article in the Jerusalem Post which brought to my attention a relatively new (yet also old – I will explain later) phenomenon, which deeply saddened me and made me infuriated to no end, but which did not shock or surprise me in the least bit. Apparently, and this is documented by photographic evidence and first-hand accounts, many brave young Hareidi men who have enlisted in the Nahal Haredi unit, or other similar units, are not welcome with open arms in their ultra-orthodox communities. Rather, they are greeted with spitting, pejoratives, and despicable signs such as one that says “Hardakim, let us live! Stop contaminating the air!” Hardakim – which is a combination of “hareidim” (ultra-orthodox) and “haidaikim” (bacteria/contaminant) – is the term attributed to our brothers who have joined the ranks of the various haredi units in the army rendering them outcasts in their own homes and communities.
While I do not intend to expound upon the underlying problem, which is more than adequately covered in the Jerusalem Post article mentioned above, I would like to offer possible solutions that we, which is a very broad ‘we’, can provide for this phenomenon in general, and to the soldiers in particular who suffer at the hands (and mouths) of their very own just for serving their own country.
For years, an overwhelming majority of Zionists – religious and secular alike – have been calling for abolishing, or at the very least, a major overhaul, of the Tal Law, which had, in the most simplest terms, provided for an indefinite exemption from army service for yeshiva students, before it eventually expired in July 2012. We, myself included, were strong and steadfast in our conviction to enlist haredim into army service.
Well now we have a golden opportunity to back up our own battle cries with real action. After hearing about the vile treatment these soldiers are receiving in their communities, it behooves us to help in making their lives easier. We should embrace them in our own communities, have them for Shabbat, show them that what they are doing for their country and for their people, matters to us. I believe that these haredi soldiers have reached a decision to serve, and strive to excel, in the Israeli Defense Forces, for a number of reasons, including the realization that they were just not getting anywhere in a Torah-learning-only setting. Such a decision should not be treated lightly because it rocks the core of their very existence in the ultra-orthodox communities.
Not only should we love and welcome these soldiers, and reinforce in them the notion that they are doing the right thing, but we should help make them feel safe and protected from the venomous untruths their ultra-orthodox contemporaries are being spoon fed by their peers, or even worse, their rabbinic leadership. Ironically, this reminds me of the vicious and unfortunate in-fighting between Menachem Begin’s Irgun movement and David Ben Gurion’s Hagana that took place in the backdrop of Israel’s War of Independence. Begin was known to have, deservedly so, taken pride in the fact that he had never encouraged his fellow Irgun members to so much as lift a finger against a fellow Jew. More than that, Begin called for his fighters to surrender themselves in various instances to the Hagana. One of our darkest hours was the well-known Altalena affair, where Ben Gurion ordered an attack on the Altalena cargo ship on the grounds that it was illegally smuggling weapons into Israel specifically for Begin’s Irgun (as opposed to the more broad general war efforts of the IDF/government). We are now being faced with a new similar threat to Yiddishkeit. And we have the chance to right this tragic wrong of sinat chinam – baseless hatred, which we should counter with unabashed warmth and acceptance.
On a practical matter I propose that we take it one step further. As a matter of government and military policy, these soldiers should be afforded those same rights and privileges granted to lone soldiers, whom we rightfully embrace. They should be entitled to housing, education, stipends which they have worked hard for and actually deserve. They should be set up in communities such as those where other lone soldiers are embraced. You get the idea. With Tisha B’av right around the corner, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the ties that bind, and not the man-made boundaries that divide. In this instance, we most definitely should be our brother’s keeper.