OpinionReligion

Stop discrimination against haredim

We are all brothers and non-haredi Israelis must acknowledge that.

Haredi Jews in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, Feb. 27, 2024. Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90
Haredi Jews in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, Feb. 27, 2024. Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90
Oshy Ellman
Oshy Ellman is an Israeli-born olah from the United Kingdom. She has two decades of experience in communications and marketing consulting services and is an active participant in the olim community.

When I made aliyah from the U.K., I could not have imagined the devastating divisions in Israeli society. During my upbringing in London, various Jewish groups coexisted more or less harmoniously. There were the secular, the less religious, the more religious and the haredim, each embracing their unique expression of Judaism. Not long after my aliyah, however, I became deeply distressed by the entrenched animosity of both secular and less religious Jews towards Israeli haredim.

This widespread disdain is especially upsetting because it means that Jews face discrimination in the very land that symbolizes the collective identity of the Jewish people. Last year, for example, a prominent Israeli news anchor shockingly referred to the haredim as “bloodsuckers” during a live broadcast. Her co-host failed to intervene or correct her. When a guest attempted to interject, he was promptly silenced.

If it had occurred anywhere else in the world, such comments would likely have been swiftly condemned as antisemitic, potentially leading to immediate dismissal. In Israel, they were tolerated and swept under the rug, leaving an entire community to grapple with the repercussions.

Beyond social exclusion and offensive remarks, instances of physical violence against haredim take place, though they are seldom reported and public outrage is notably absent. In a troubling incident last March, a haredi couple made a wrong turn following a visit to their son and found themselves in proximity to anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv. They were subsequently subjected to physical assault. Another distressing event involved an elderly haredi couple purposefully hosed by a police truck with anti-riot water cannons, knocking them down.

Unfortunately, these incidents too received minimal media coverage. Instead, the media often prefers to highlight other stories that unfairly demonize the haredim.

Antisemitism is a familiar issue in the Diaspora but discrimination within Israel is often overlooked. There is a tendency to ignore those who harbor disdain for fellow Jews. In the Jewish state of all places, where every individual should be free to express their religion in private or in public without fear of persecution, this is particularly troubling.

The main reason for this hatred of the haredim seems to be the issue of military enlistment. Secular Israelis, who are routinely drafted into the army, often criticize the haredim for their exemption from IDF service. They believe that because non-haredi Israelis’ sons and daughters are actively contributing to the defense of Israel, it is offensive that the haredim do not share this burden. 

But Israeli Arabs, a population of similar size, are also exempt from the draft. Moreover, there has been a decline in enlistment among secular Israelis. Data from 2020 revealed that a third of Israeli youth do not enlist in the IDF and an additional 15% do not complete their military service. Despite these trends, neither of these groups faces comparable animosity and slander, nor does the media extensively cover these facts.

Haredim are exempt from military service because, when Israel was founded, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion exempted the small community of about 400 haredim residing in the country at that time. They were permitted to dedicate their time to Torah study. This established an enduring precedent. Today, the haredim number just over a million and continue this tradition of full-time religious studies.

While there are legitimate arguments for encouraging haredim to join the army or undertake other forms of national service, the vitriol against the community is misdirected. It would be more constructive to address the systemic issues behind the exemption and the leaders who can effect change.

This is because haredi army service is not as simple as it sounds. For example, several religious army units have been established, including one for haredim. It is widely acknowledged, however, that in practice it is difficult for these soldiers to observe their religious obligations. Despite designated prayer times, one soldier disclosed that he was compelled to choose between praying and having lunch because he was only allowed a 30-minute break. Another soldier lamented that phones were only permitted to be used on Shabbat, which severely limited his ability to communicate with others.

Such constraints often lead young religious soldiers to abandon their practices because they are faced with too many overwhelming obstacles. This is precisely why their community fears the consequences of enlistment and they are not wrong.

Moreover, instances of discrimination against haredi soldiers are rife. The haredi combat battalion Netzah Yehuda, established nearly 30 years ago, consistently encounters bias from secular communities. Calls for its dissolution highlight the systemic hurdles still confronting religious soldiers.

However, Oct. 7 was a historic turning point. Thousands of haredim joined the army. Thousands of Haredim played pivotal roles as first responders through the Zaka organization, aiding in the preparation and burial of victims. They took part in other organizations such as United Hatzalah, volunteering to save the lives of others. There is also an increasing number of haredim who are making the voluntary choice to enlist or take part in national service programs and the workforce.

The majority of Israeli society believes that the haredi draft exemption must be reevaluated. But it must also recognize that if Israeli society genuinely desires meaningful integration of the haredim into the army, then a suitable framework for their enlistment must be established before their conscription.

All of us need to move beyond generalizations and stereotypes. The haredim, like any other community, is a group of complex and diverse individuals who are not our enemy. They are our brothers and must be respected as such. Our true adversaries lie beyond our people, as tragically evidenced on Oct. 7.

Our history has demonstrated the consequences of internal strife. We all know deep down that our ability to overcome the nightmare reality we have endured and the genocidal thugs on our borders depends on setting aside our differences and standing united, each of us with our own mission for the Jewish people.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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