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Under standing for the siren

Haredi Israelis are showing signs of a changing attitude to Israel's national rituals

The sirens fall silent again followed immediately by private and public ceremonies across the country. Every town or city has one and every neighborhood and school remembers those who gave their lives defending the country.

As part of Gesher’s educational work with the army we have the privilege of helping with the preparation of the IDF’s cadets during their training to become officers. The topics discussed during this seminar include the reality that these young officers risk their lives for people who often have very little by way of connection to those on the front line. Indeed the question often arises in anger or frustration, why should I risk my life for those who are not prepared to do the same?

When we discuss this there are of course many aspects to the debate. They are highly motivated to be great officers in land, sea and air, all this in spite of knowing that they represent an Israeli society, with many areas of deep disagreement. These schisms do not take anything away from the importance of their role defending all the citizens of the country.

The Haredi communities have had at best, a historic ambivalence towards Yom Hazikaron, such a central symbol within the Zionist ethos. Even the method for remembrance, a siren signaling two minutes of silent reflection, is considered by them to be anathema to traditional Jewish practice. In the last few years a new (and rather ugly) custom has arisen with news editors sending out film crews to “catch” Haredim on camera who are not respecting the siren. This practice reached a new peak last year when Haredim were filmed having a barbecue in a major Jerusalem park at the time of the siren. It was surely considered a blatant mark of disrespect.

This year a group called Dossim acted in advance of Yom Hazikaron to show that it is possible to see others within a more positive light, by creating an alternative but respectful ceremony for Haredim to remember the dead. In addition, on both Yom Hasoah and Yom Hazikaron groups led by Plugta and Mitchabrim held meetings on these actual days to discuss together their meaning for each group, one Haredi and the other not.

Of special interest are several news items or editorials that have appeared in the lead up to Yom Hazikaron from within the Haredi mainstream perhaps signaling a change in tone. It started with an editorial written in Hamodia the official newspaper of Agudat Yisrael. Hamodia is well known for its forthright stance on the State and its symbols, and has certainly not held back during the recent debate and struggle on the new Conscription Law. Notwithstanding their traditional viewpoint they published an editorial urging all Haredim to stand during the sirens for Yom Hazikaron. Whilst the reasoning was more set in a negative rather than a positive stance, (not respecting the siren could cause a Hilul Hashem, rather than an instruction that standing is in of itself the right thing to do) it has today been backed up by a halachic ruling by Rabbi Nissim Karlitz, a leading Litvak Rabbi, and former head of one of the most important private Rabbinic Courts, calling for everyone outside during the time of the siren to stand, again based on the same reasoning. So far as I can recall, and I have asked others, this is a departure for the official Haredi media and Halachic ruling, in spite of the fact that most Haredim have generally respected the siren, and in particular in non-Haredi towns or neigbourhoods.

As a footnote to the “official” ways of giving instruction to the Haredi public several columns in the independent Haredi media (mostly web sites) and the mainstream media have made a stronger case. These writers have moved a step further, looking for a way to embrace (even if partially) this very Zionist of symbols as an expression of identifying with the personal loss of the families of the fallen. In one particular column, Ynet journalist and Charedim10 editor Eliezer Hayoun makes a fairly scathing attack on the Haredi Yeshivot for completely ignoring the sacrifice made, both by those that have given their lives for the country, and those who are constantly risking it on a daily basis. In another column Haredi activist Tzipi Gutman makes the case that standing during the siren is actually a very Jewish way of respecting those who have lost family members.

What does this all mean?

I believe that alongside the obvious tension that has grown over the last year there are other underlying trends which are of no less significance. They are perhaps more fragile, and for a media looking for ways to divide rather than unite, less sexy, but there is clearly a latent desire for many Haredim to find a way to connect to the inner most elements of Israeli consensus. During private conversations with Haredi leaders it is clear to me that they would like at the most basic human level to be part of these days. This has little to do with ideology and much more to do with psychology. When discussing this with my non-Haredi friends (I have some of them too) their response was simple. If they want to join the ceremonies for Yom Hazikaron, then all they need to do is show up. Whilst this may seem a simple thing to do, it clearly is not. I would even go so far as to say that we have some responsibility to encourage and invite them in.

This process can and should happen, but it cannot start in the week of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’azmaut. It must form part of an ongoing search for the dialogue enabling détente between communities.

The only question we need to ask ourselves when we look deep inside is if we want more of our Haredi brothers and sisters at these ceremonies?

I can think of plenty reasons to say no to this question, perhaps the top of the list being they have no right to take part until they become full partners in bearing the national load. However each of these methods of engagement form part of the process of solving the thornier issues, and I urge us all to find a way to invite others into our inner circle of Israeli society, notwithstanding the seemingly overwhelming differences that we still have. I am sure that it will also help those officers and soldiers answer the question — why and for whom are they risking their lives on a daily basis?

Next year I will not wait until the morning of Yom Hazikaron to invite someone to our beautiful school ceremony, by then it’s already too late.

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is Chairman of Gesher, the leading organisation bridging social gaps in Israeli society; he is a local activist in Beit Shemesh and Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital.
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