Saturday, June 24, 2017

Get Off the Sidelines! A Charge to My Fellow Chareidim

       While I love to share words of Torah and encouragement with the greater public, I have often shied away from commenting with my personal opinions on social and political issues in public forums as it is so easy to misunderstand or misrepresent the true purpose behind a person’s statement. Furthermore, while there is a great amount of purposeful, useful, and intelligent discussion to be found in these forums, there is at least ten times that amount in hurtful, insulting, and frankly, unintelligent comments, that I generally hesitate to offer a contribution. However, due to a personal experience in the past week, I feel responsible to make my voice heard and insure that the community I associate myself with is well-represented, and that those I feel are in the wrong are acknowledged as such.

       This past Wednesday night, June 21, at around 9:30PM, three religious Jews, soldiers in the IDF, were verbally abused by a mob while davening Maariv at the “Shteiblach” in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood in Yerushalayim. The police were called in to escort the soldiers out of the neighborhood safely. This is just the latest incident of violence against religious soldiers here in Eretz Yisrael, but this one has prompted me to share my feelings, primarily because I was there.
      At the time, I didn’t know what was happening. “Shteebs” is a minyan “factory”, with five different rooms allowing minyanim to be going on an almost 24-hour basis. While this incident was happening in Room “Bet”, I was davening further back in Room “Hay”. In the middle of our Minyan, a huge tumult began outside with well over a hundred people gathering in the outer courtyard of the shul. Huge swarms of people were pushing back and forth, there was screaming and yelling, to the point that nothing else could be heard inside our room, let alone being able to daven. When davening finished and I walked outside, all I could see was a mass of people around the entrance of “Bet”. The first thought that crossed my mind was, “terrorist attack”, and when I heard the arrival of the police, I decided it was best to leave first and ask questions later.
       I found out on the news around an hour later what had actually taken place. Three frum Jews, Orthodox Jews, had been davening, only to be met with abuse, including the vilest of insults, “Nazi”, as if they had perpetrated the deaths of millions, simply because they were soldiers in the IDF. (I had heard those calls while I was there and had assumed they were being directed at an Arab terrorist.) My first thought was pure embarrassment; not sadness, though that followed quickly after, but embarrassment.
       I identify as a Chareidi Orthodox Jew, whether I’m required to put an “ultra” before the “Orthodox” depends on how much variance you give to the Chareidi label. While I belong to the halachic camp that serving in the IDF is not a mitzvah and also believe it is spiritually detrimental, I do not believe it is an aveirah; after all, there are many reasons why one might join the army. (Not that it matters, but I have many family members and close friends who have served in the IDF. I do my best to support the soldiers of my country both socially and spiritually.) It is certainly possible for a religious person to make a Kiddush Hashem while serving in the IDF.
       But why did this particular incident hit me so hard? This certainly wasn’t the first instance of something like this happening, no one even got hurt! The obvious explanation is because I actually was present in this instance, and that certainly plays a part, but it’s not everything. It is more about the question I keep asking myself: What would I have done if I knew what was happening while I was at shul? Would I have jumped into the fray and defended the soldiers? Would I have yelled back at the protesters as they shouted? Would I have done nothing?
       Before I asked myself that, I needed to ask myself what should I have done? Obviously, it would be suicide to take on a mob, even one that was not engaging in physical violence. However, I feel that doesn’t release me of the responsibility to do something, just in a different format.
       The people who are abusing and assaulting IDF soldiers may be called Chareidim, but they don’t represent our community. They are a minority; to the best of my knowledge, no known figure in the Chareidi world has proposed or even simply supported the abuse of soldiers. They are extremists; furthermore, they didn’t become extremists because of these incidents, they were extremists even beforehand, but it wasn’t necessary to speak out the distinction. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this incident has felt the same way as me, actually even stronger than I do. But even so, and without regard for any other social or religious circles, we as Chareidim have the responsibility to speak up and say loudly what we clearly believe. It’s important for us to make a clear distinction between what we consider right and wrong.
       We do not support the abuse of Jews. Whatever disagreements exist over the complicated issue of serving in the IDF, they are not with the soldiers themselves. Any person who acts in a manner similar to what I witnessed Wednesday night is wrong and is not affiliated with our Torah Hashkafah. Anyone who viewed that spectacle should feel anger and embarrassment. To be fair, even though there were around 100 people at Shteebs during the incident, I have no idea how many were actively involved in the abuse. However, none of them were working against the abusers either. That someone even similar to us hashkafically could act in such a way should anger us all.

       So what should we do to combat this? Attacking a mob is never a good idea, but vocalizing to the greater community our disagreements with these actions instead of keeping it to private conversations is something we can all do. We can let the minority know that they are the minority. And when we aren’t up against a mob and see such abuse taking place, we should make it very clear to those perpetuating such acts that they are wrong. By knowing there is someone there against them, perhaps they’ll then think twice before engaging again. Any Chilul Hashem those three soldiers might make by serving in the IDF shouldn’t compare to the one we make by standing on the sidelines.

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