The Haredi Defenders of Jerusalem in the 1948 War

Recently, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party again threatened a coalition crisis that could bring down the government and spark early elections if it does not cave in on the exemption controversy for yeshiva students. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has been threatening to break up Bibi Netanyahu’s ruling coalition if a law on exempting the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service was not passed.

The haredim (as usual) are exploiting Netanyahu’s weakness because of the investigations against him.  No doubt, our enemies among the Iranians and the Palestinians must be giggling with laughter.  Any such dissidents in their ranks would be lined up and shot (or worse).  Maybe Litzman should read a bit about the history of city of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence and its defense from the Jordanian Legion by haredim collaborating with the IDF.  He really should be ashamed.

When I read the report about Litzmans’ statements on YNET, my history memory kicked in and I remembered seeing pictures of haredim defending Mea Shearim in the 1948 War with Sten guns.

The 9mm Sten submachine gun was a favorite of the IDF of the time and some of the first weapons manufactured in underground factories before the declaration of independence of the state of Israel.  The weapon was known unaffectionately by the British Army in World War II as “the plumbers’ nightmare” because of its unreliability and its manufacture from off the shelf, field expedient parts such as bedsprings.  It was however easy to manufacture and use and required little training.  As such it was perfect for a novice such as a bucher to defend his yeshiva with.

I doubt Rabbi Litzman has Shlomo Goren’s memoirs on his book shelf.  I do.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Goren, the IDF’s chief rabbi, was summoned on a Friday morning by the IDF commander of Jerusalem. Intelligence had just learned that Jordanian Legion tanks would invade central Jerusalem at 11 A.M. on Saturday. The IDF in the city lacked the weaponry that could stop a tank column.

The commander told Rabbi Goren that the only chance was to dig anti-tank trenches. The Jordanians had been shelling the area constantly by day.  Trenches could only be dug after sundown, thereby violating the Sabbath. IDF soldiers were all fighting at the front and couldn’t be spared for the task.  Could Goren recruit Haredi yeshiva students who had not enlisted in the IDF to provide the manpower required to dig the ditches?

Jewish law mandates Shabbat violation to save lives. Certainly, this situation qualified. But they both feared the students wouldn’t accept their rulings. Goren approached the rabbi of Neturei Karta who flatly forbade violating Shabbat, since “it won’t help anyway: The city will fall.”  In other words, you go while sit on our tuchases.

Undaunted, Goren appealed directly to the students. He went from yeshiva to yeshiva, explaining the situation and requesting volunteers.  At every one, including Neturei Karta yeshivas, all hands in the rooms went up. That Friday night, over 1,000 haredi yeshiva students dug anti-tank ditches and fighting positions in Jerusalem. On that Shabbat morning, the first three Jordanian Sherman tanks hit the ditches and overturned. The rest of the Shermans in the column retreated.

Without these haredim digging trenches and fighting for the city, Israel would have lost the entirety of Jerusalem in 1948 rather than only part. Had it depended on the Litzmans of 1948, the Mea Shearim would have been captured by the Jordanians: It survived only because the ordinary haredim who were less religiously extreme than their leaders stepped up to the challenge and saved their neighborhood and the rest of West Jerusalem.

I wonder if the residents of present day Mea Shearim know when they need to defend the state that nurtures them.  The enemy is not the IDF.

In the US Army, we had a saying:  lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. I hope present day haredim will be less extreme than their leaders and quit blocking my traffic on my way to and from work so I can help to pay their taxes.

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About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college professor, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.
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