Netanyahu blasts ‘despicable’ burning of IDF soldier in effigy

PM says incident in Jerusalem an attempt by ‘extremist faction’ to hurt ultra-Orthodox troops, calls for police action; Liberman, Deri echo condemnations

Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn an effigy of an IDF soldier during Lag B'Omer celebrations in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim in Jerusalem on May 13, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn an effigy of an IDF soldier during Lag B'Omer celebrations in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim in Jerusalem on May 13, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday condemned the burning in effigy of an Israeli soldier in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, calling it a “despicable act.”

Netanyahu, speaking at a cabinet meeting, said that it was incumbent upon all lawmakers to denounce Saturday’s incident.

“I expect, request and demand from all public leaders to denounce this despicable act and I also request that the police find those responsible,” he said.

Netanyahu added that the incident was an attempt by an “extremist faction” to harm ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

“An extremist faction of the ultra-Orthodox community, albeit a marginal [one], a faction identified with Neturei Karta, burned effigies of IDF soldiers with IDF uniforms with Israeli flags in order to harm ultra-Orthodox soldiers,” he said, referring to a radical anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox group.

“IDF soldiers protect all of us, including the ultra-Orthodox and including these people” behind the burning, he added.

Video and photos of the incident from Saturday evening showed a masked man holding a life-sized puppet-like effigy of a soldier over a bonfire with a long stick.

It was dressed in an army shirt emblazoned with the name of the Sayaret Matkal elite commando unit on the back. A beard had been drawn on the face of the doll in an apparent attempt to make it look like an ultra-Orthodox soldier.

The crowd, including a number of children, cheered and clapped as the effigy caught fire.

The incident took place as part of celebrations for Lag B’Omer, the traditional date of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a first-century CE sage, which is marked with celebrations and bonfires.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn an Israeli flag during Lag B'Omer celebrations in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim in Jerusalem on May 13, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn an Israeli flag during Lag B’Omer celebrations in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem on May 13, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Echoing Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called on the police to take action against the perpetrators.

“The burning of effigies of IDF soldiers was an embarrassing and grave incident that calls for a firm and uncompromising police action and clear condemnation by the heads of the ultra-Orthodox community,” he said on Twitter.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, whose Shas party represents many in the ultra-Orthodox community, called the incident “condemnable and outrageous.”

“We need to fight this difficult phenomenon and demand the police catch those involved,” he wrote on Twitter.

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid criticized the government for a weak response to the recent provocations. The government “can no longer remain silent in the face of this craziness,” he said in a statement released before Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

“This is not a battle between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. A vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews are shocked and disgusted, as are all Israeli citizens, at these acts,” he said.

Lapid is viewed with antagonism by many in the ultra-Orthodox community due to his efforts to end draft exemptions for yeshiva students while finance minister in the last government. Three years ago, in a similar incident, protesters burnt an effigy of Lapid during Lag B’Omer celebrations.

The incident is the latest in which ultra-Orthodox Jews have incited against members of the community who join the Israeli military. The ultra-Orthodox have also held dozens of demonstrations to protest mandatory enlistment of religious Jews, following decades in which they were allowed to avoid conscription.

In March, effigies of IDF soldiers were found hanging by the neck in prominent locations in Mea She’arim, one of which had a sign attached to it that read “hardak out,” a derogatory term for ultra-Orthodox Jews who join the army and which sounds similar to the Hebrew words for insect and germ.

Police said at the time of the incident that one of the figures was taken to a police laboratory for forensic testing and that police requested that the State Attorney’s Office open an investigation for incitement A police spokeswoman said that the investigation is ongoing and refused to comment on whether any arrests have been made.

A religious IDF soldier was also attacked last month by a mob of ultra-Orthodox Jews during a rally in support of two draft dodgers from their community who, at the end of a short furlough, were driven back to military prison in a white stretch limousine.

Dozens of protesters threw debris and shouted curses at the soldier, who was wearing a yarmulke, as hundreds chased him along a street at the Bar Ilan intersection in Jerusalem. A cellphone video of the attack showed the soldier as he was hounded by dozens of noisy demonstrators.

The soldier escaped unhurt from the incident.

The arrest and imprisonment of ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers has raised tensions in the community and a recent series of large demonstrations against the induction of ultra-Orthodox people into the army saw violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

Some segments of ultra-Orthodox society refuse to recognize the State of Israel and oppose Zionism, because of their belief that the establishment of a Jewish state should only come after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve in the Israeli army and run their own educational system, but receive a variety of grants from the government.

Mea She’arim is a stronghold of Neturei Karta and other anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox groups. It is not clear from the video which ultra-Orthodox sect participated in the burning.

AFP contributed to this report.

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