A charedi hero’s plea

A charedi hero’s plea

JERUSALEM – The recent violence in Beit Shemesh and in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood has led me to speak out against the so-called “sikrikim” in the harshest possible terms, equating their actions to terrorism. Sikrikim – Sicarii-ites – is the name given to a fringe anti-Zionist vigilante group, loosely linked to Neturei Karta and said to have been at the forefront of many of the recent violent attacks against innocent Israelis.

In my mind, there is a dangerous similarity in their actions and those of Islamist terrorists. I do not use this comparison lightly. As the founder of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization, I know only too well the horror of terror.

These charedi hooligans have wreaked havoc through harassment and violence for far too long. It does not really matter how they justify their actions. They cannot be allowed to go on like this at the expense of innocent bystanders, whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at the expense of the charedi community, whose collective reputation and image are being tarred by their individual brush.

There would be communal outcry if terrorists dressed up as charedim, attacked a bus in Mea Shearim, broke its windows, and injured innocent men, women, and children. However, if charedim themselves do something similar in the name of religious zealotry, a cloak of silence spreads across the charedi community. It is a double standard and it has to end, and I call upon charedi community leaders to make their voices heard.

The silence of the majority of our leaders has allowed a tiny fringe group of extremists to hijack the media into thinking it represents the entire charedi community in Israel. This terrible generalization could not be further from the truth. It is insulting to those of us who have worked for so many years to bridge the gaps of understanding with all sectors of Israeli society.

As a proud 11th-generation Jerusalemite from Mea Shearim, I know the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta very well, having been raised in their midst and spoon-fed their ideology through my formative years. I was personally arrested no less than 34 times for organizing protests against what I then saw as the “evil Zionist regime.” As I grew older, I realized that unlike my traditional attire, not everything is black and white.

My abhorrent view of the “Zionists” came to a sudden and drastic halt on July 6, 1989, when I witnessed the aftermath of an Islamic Jihad terrorist attack on the No. 405 bus en route to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Hearing the commotion, I ran from my yeshivah studies to witness a sobering image that would remain imprinted on my mind forever. Sixteen innocent Jews lay among the carnage, including young soldiers, elderly Jerusalemites, North American tourists, and Israeli teenagers.

Suddenly, it became clear in my mind that if terrorists do not discriminate between Jews, then neither should I. Instinctively, I ran towards the mangled bus and began to help prepare the victims for burial. Unbeknown to me at the time, these were the humble beginnings of ZAKA.

I used my organizational skills and contacts to build a framework in which young charedi men could give back to society in a way that no other government body was prepared to do. We took responsibility for collecting the remains of terror victims for burial, attending one terror attack after another. Our volunteers received professional training and worked side by side with all of the other emergency services. Suddenly, people began to associate at least some charedi as caring individuals fulfilling a critical role in society.

Today, ZAKA has thousands of volunteers from all sectors in Israeli society – Jews, Christians, Druze, and Muslims. Our work has progressed into that of a United Nations-recognized international rescue-and-recovery organization with branches across the globe, ready to deploy to any mass casualty situation.

Once I realized that the Jewish people were one, I began to understand our global role as a “light unto the nations.” What better light can we provide than saving lives and assisting others in their time of need, irrespective of race, color, or creed? As our sages tell us, “All of mankind was created in the image of God” – not just Jews, and certainly not just charedi Jews.

Authentic Judaism is not about highlighting differences and attacking those who do not share your world view. It is about bringing the world closer to perfection, tikkun olam, working together for the sake of the greater good.

The fanatics hide behind the legitimacy of religious garb and spend their time desecrating all that is holy. Through aggression and sick media gimmicks, they seek to bully society into capitulating to their every wish and paint all of Torah Judaism as xenophobic and intolerant.

The only way to fight their hate is to increase our love and understanding. We must continue to work together as human beings, irrelevant of race, color or creed to make this world a better place for generations to come.

JTA Wire Service