Israeli public figures on Wednesday strongly condemned an attack Tuesday by a mob of ultra-Orthodox Jews on an IDF soldier as he walked through the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman, speaking at a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, threatened legislation to stamp out the phenomenon.
“The attack on the soldier should be taken very seriously,” he said. “No less grave is the fact that so far the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have not condemned this dreadful incident. If we see that within a couple of days no steps are taken, then I think the committee should legislate a law that provides an answer to this shocking thing.”
The ultra-Orthodox community has been pushing back strongly against legislation to increase conscription in its ranks that does away with a longstanding, sweeping exemption for yeshiva students. A watered-down version of the universal conscription bill was given the go-ahead on Sunday. An acerbic public relations campaign has depicted soldiers in the community as agents of the army, sent to Haredi neighborhoods to push army service.
The soldier was attacked by dozens of ultra-Orthodox men. He managed to escape the mob, who beat him with sticks and fists and threw eggs at him, by running into a nearby apartment building and calling the police. Municipal and Border Police who arrived on the scene were attacked by the growing crowd, as were medics called to the area. The attackers threw stones at the officers and called them Nazis. The police eventually managed to restore the peace and pulled the soldier out safely.
Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom expressed outrage over Tuesday’s incident, during which the ultra-Orthodox soldier was assaulted during a visit with his family.
“As someone who, as deputy defense minister, was involved in establishing the Nahal Haredi [ultra-Orthodox army unit] in the late 90s, I must say that I shocked at this despicable and contemptible act,” he said in a statement. “We are in the midst of the nine days before the 9th of Av, the day when the temple was destroyed because of hatred, and regrettably, we’re seeing these scenes again on the streets of Jerusalem.”
According to the Hebrew calendar, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was sacked on the ninth day of the month of Av, which is marked as a fast day and this year falls on July 16. The nine-day period from the beginning of Av until the fast, known as “the Nine Days,” is traditionally a period of reflection on the gratuitous hatred and infighting that, tradition has it, were among the causes of the temple’s destruction and the subsequent 2,000-year exile.
Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett, however, cautioned against a backlash of animosity directed at the ultra-Orthodox community. Bennett, one of the central proponents of the universal draft bill, beat his chest over the shrill discourse that surrounded the run-up to the legislation.
“The incident in Mea Shearim yesterday was extremely grave, and I trust the police to deal with it as necessary,” Bennett said in a statement. “Anyone who dares to hurt one of our soldiers will be severely punished, period. [But] what is no less dangerous is the attack on the Haredi public as a whole, even though it is quite clear that what we are talking about here is a small, very, extreme group. This generalization is dangerous. Guys, we’ve taken this too far.”
Bennett, who, after January’s elections, made the universal draft bill a precondition to bringing his Jewish Home party into the government, asserted that the integration of Haredim into the workforce and the army would be effected though dialogue and discussion and not by inflammatory debate.
David Fuchs, a rabbi from the Nahal Haredi NGO, which aims to provide spiritual support for ultra-Orthodox soldiers, said that those who attacked the soldier represented a small but vocal handful of people. Fuchs told Israel Radio that most of the Haredi soldiers were proud of their service and treated with respect in their neighborhoods.
MK Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and a vociferous opponent of universal conscription, said that the perpetrators of the attack were on the margins of his community.
“None of us support violence and all of us are against it,” he said.
Still, he implied that responsbility partially lay with Bennett and his cohort: “When you make ideological matters into social conflict, then don’t be surprised if we see the kind of social conflict that we have been trying to avoid for years.”