In quiet revolution, ultra-Orthodox mark Memorial Day
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In quiet revolution, ultra-Orthodox mark Memorial Day

Despite historic opposition to IDF service, Haredi media and leaders approve of ceremonies organized for community's fallen soldiers and terror victims

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a Memorial Day ceremony in Kiryat Gat, May 1, 2017. (Ministry of Health)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a Memorial Day ceremony in Kiryat Gat, May 1, 2017. (Ministry of Health)

As Israel marked its annual Memorial Day on Monday, members of the ultra-Orthodox community, seen by many as hostile to the IDF and the secular State of Israel on ideological grounds, organized ceremonies and events to honor 23,544 fallen soldiers and 3,117 victims of terror, the community’s media outlets reported.

Two of the leading ultra-Orthodox Hebrew-language websites headlined their sites with news of ceremonies and other activities relating to Memorial Day.

The Behadrei Haredim website carried a report about ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset attending official ceremonies.

The report noted approvingly that all seven Shas party MKs were expected to attend ceremonies and that while most of the six United Torah Judaism lawmakers would not, it assured readers that they would still mark the solemn day in other ways.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a Memorial Day ceremony, May 1, 2017. (Twitter screen capture)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a Memorial Day ceremony, May 1, 2017. (Twitter screen capture)

Even so, UTJ’s top lawmaker, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, attended a commemoration ceremony with Air Force soldiers Monday and laid a wreath as the official representative of the government.

Israel’s Memorial Day began on Sunday evening and ends Monday evening, when the country transitions to Independence Day celebrations.

Ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Haredim also highlighted its recent support of a program in which members of the Haredi public study sections of the Talmud in memory of fallen IDF soldiers and terror victims. According to a report on the site, since announcing its backing of the “Lakdoshim” (“For the Martyrs”) project thousands of people signed up for the drive, which aims to have volunteers jointly study all 2,711 pages of the Talmud over the course of Memorial Day.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Kikar Hashabat website, one of the most popular among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, similarly organized an online reading of Psalms in memory of the fallen, with the goal of having volunteers read through all chapters of the book over Memorial Day. Studying religious texts or reading psalms is a traditional Jewish way to honor the memory of the deceased.

Kikar Hashabat listed various ultra-Orthodox memorial ceremonies around the country, including those planned in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Other activities promoted on the site were graveside visits, another traditional way to honor the dead.

Both websites also published stories on Monday about young ultra-Orthodox men who fell fighting in Israel’s wars.

Commemoration programs were also held Sunday evening on one of the largest Haredi radio stations, Kol Barama.

Channel 2 television’s religious affairs reporter Yair Cherki, in a post to his Facebook page Saturday, noted an increasing trend of ultra-Orthodox recognition of the memorial and independence day events, and a growing sense of affinity among Haredi Israelis for the country’s civil holidays.

“You can write volumes on the history of Haredi people and [their relationship to] Zionism, and explain the whole ideological baggage, it is all true, but then you would miss the real story that is happening now. There is an ultra-Orthodox generation that is [growing up] Israeli in every way. The young people live in this country, they are involved, up to date, and want to belong,” he wrote.

“Even if in the established ultra-Orthodox newspapers they still ignore the national holidays, it is no longer really relevant. The Haredi radio stations and websites reach a much bigger audience, and they are doing everything to belong.”

Many Israelis were angered in past years at the custom of some ultra-Orthodox to pointedly refuse to stand still during the sounding of the national sirens on the eve and morning of Memorial Day.

On Monday, Kikar Hashabat reported that a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Zion Boaron, warned of a “hostile media” that looked each year for members of the community who refused to stand still. In a recent speech to yeshiva students, he told them to remain indoors during the siren.

“On Independence Day, Memorial Day, they are just looking for someone, any guy who is walking around during the siren,” Boaron told the yeshiva students. “You don’t have to reach that situation. During the siren I don’t go out, to not give them an opening to speak out, because they don’t understand, they are ignorant.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2017. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2017. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community shun the mandatory military service that applies to most Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions in favor of religious seminary studies. However, some refuse to even appear at the recruiting office to apply for exemptions, leading to their arrest as draft dodgers by Israeli authorities. The arrests have increased tensions between authorities and the community with regular rioting and protests in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and Bnei Brak. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis who choose to join the army have been attacked on occasion by members of factions opposed to military service.

“This story, of the extremist factions, we report about a lot in the media, and rightly so,” Cherki wrote. “But when we see a Haredi curse a soldier, we mustn’t be confused and miss the no-less-important story: We have become accustomed to the existence of the ultra-Orthodox soldier.”

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