Day after attack on soldier, ultra-Orthodox neighborhood unabashed

While some decry violence that saw soldier pelted with eggs and oil, many in extremist stronghold unperturbed by incident

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Graffiti depicting a Palestinian flag in a stronghold of the extremist Neturei Karta faction in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Mea Shearim (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Graffiti depicting a Palestinian flag in a stronghold of the extremist Neturei Karta faction in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Mea Shearim (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

The soldier assaulted in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on Tuesday stepped into the lion’s den of anti-establishment ultra-Orthodoxy: a street dominated by the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect.

While politicians, army officials and others, many from the ultra-Orthodox community, have come out against the attack, residents of the neighborhood voiced little condemnation on Wednesday.

The soldier was attacked by dozens of ultra-Orthodox men Tuesday night while walking through the central Jerusalem neighborhood. His attackers beat him and threw oil, water and eggs at him before he managed to escape by ducking into an office, changing out of his uniform, and calling the police.

Officers and medics called to the scene were pelted with stones by residents, who called them Nazis. Four men were arrested for allegedly participating in the assault.

The rabbit’s warren of alleys surrounding the scene of the crime on Nahum Ish Gamzo street feature walls plastered with pashkvils — printed public notices — denouncing participation in national elections and graffiti berating ultra-Orthodox Jews who enlist in the IDF.

Spray-painted Palestinian flags and statements like “hardakim [a slur for “lightweight” ultra-Orthodox] out” and “hardak, if you go this far, you erred” present themselves on the masonry. The Hebrew and Arabic on the street sign for Ish Gamzo Street were blackened out, leaving an only partly legible English name.

Most of the residents of the immediate neighborhood were unwilling to discuss Tuesday’s incident. Some flat-out denied anything had happened. Dov, an elderly man who reluctantly gave his first name, said Tuesday’s attack was the first of its kind, and that it was a minor incident perpetrated by a small number of extreme individuals and blown out of proportion by the media.

While he doesn’t agree with the mandatory draft, he noted that his father and brother had served in the military. “Once it’s forced, it becomes another thing entirely,” he said.

One teen, a bashful 17-year-old who identified himself merely as Yitzhak, said the neighborhood where the soldier was attacked is a stronghold of the extreme anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect and identified the soldier’s attackers as members of the group. He offered rare condemnation of the attack, calling it “not good.”

Yitzhak said that while the mandatory draft of the ultra-Orthodox was not necessarily a good thing, there was no call for maltreating someone for wearing the uniform.

When asked whether he would enlist should he receive a draft order from the IDF in the coming year, he said: “We’ll see what happens” and declared that he would consult his rabbi.

While speaking with Yitzhak, another Haredi teen approached him and warned in Yiddish against speaking to a reporter. Another teen warned in English that “my principal is going to come out and give everyone a punishment” for talking to a reporter.

Another teen standing outside the yeshiva on Ish Gamzo Street, who declined to give his name, remarked that the soldier “got what was coming to him.” His companion, 20-year-old Akiva, who wore the blue-and-gold pinstripe garment of the Neturei Karta, explained that “that’s what needs to be done.”

Akiva said that the residents of Ish Gamzo Street didn’t attack the soldier, they merely berated him. Only after the police entered the neighborhood did things get hairy, he said, justifying the assault of a police officer with stones.

“To shout, sure,” he said, condoning the invective of the attackers. “To assault, I don’t know.”

His bottom line, however, was simple: “This is not the place for soldiers in uniform.”

“Everyone who returns from the IDF comes back a goy [a gentile],” he said.

Army officials, however, were unequivocal in their condemnations of the attack.

IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz called the incident “very severe,” and said he would deal with it using all the methods at his disposal.

“IDF soldiers carry out their mission not on behalf of shtreimels or yarmulkes or whoever doesn’t wear them, but for all Israeli citizens.”

IDF Spokesman Yoav Mordechai called on ultra-Orthodox leaders to issue an unequivocal condemnation of harassment of IDF soldiers.

“I’m trying to think what would happen if soldiers were attacked by Israeli non-Jews in the Negev or Galilee,” Mordechai said.

The attack was also met with condemnation from across the political spectrum.

“The ongoing incitement and the violent wild attacks against ultra-Orthodox enlistees, like the serious incident this evening in Jerusalem, should be roundly condemned and arouse deep shock,” said Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).

MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), a former IDF chief of staff, said, “We cannot let soldiers turn into moving targets for political assaults… We need to protect these soldiers in every place they are in danger.”

Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), however, cautioned against a backlash of animosity directed at the ultra-Orthodox community.

“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.

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 responsibility 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.”

Lazar Berman and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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