Where Did Mohammed Abu Khdeir's Murderers Come From? The Lost Children of Israel

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Haredim in Bnei Brak, April 2012.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The names of the six suspects in the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir are still under a gag order, and as some of them are minors, it’s not clear when or if their names will ever be released. What can be said is that these youths are on the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community.

In other words, they belong to the most overlooked and least understood part of Israeli society: young men and women who don’t fit into the rigid structure of their Haredi homes but have not crossed into another community and perhaps never will. They may be the most easily disowned group — not only in Israel, but in the entire Jewish world.

Tragically, they are also the most susceptible to influence from Kahanist and other racist groups that trawl the streets of Jerusalem for such disaffected youths, offering them acceptance into a cult that fuses nationalism, Judaism, violence and lawlessness. 

Haaretz commentator Or Kashti has amply described how Israel’s school system has failed to educate its students about racism and human rights, but at least the state schools have made an effort, however feeble. What about the 18 percent of Israeli children, nearly 300,000, enrolled in Haredi schools that teach their own curriculums with minimal if any state supervision? (Though most continue receiving public funding.) And what about those teenagers who chafe at the strictures of ultra-Orthodox life and drop out? 

There is no way to even begin assessing the size of this group. Many of them remain registered with their yeshivas or seminars that receive funding based on the official number of students and have little interest in acknowledging truancy.

The Education Ministry says dropout rates in Haredi education are at 8 percent, but some observers believe the number is three times higher. We’re talking about tens of thousands of teenagers. Some transfer to special yeshivas and seminars founded for students who have trouble handling the tough requirements of the mainstream institutes.

But there is a stigma attached to these places in a society where a young person’s suitability for a good marriage match is everything. And while some educators at these places make sterling efforts on behalf of their students, they operate on the premise that whatever happens, the kids must remain in the Haredi framework.

Not enough support

Every other sector of Israeli society, even the most underprivileged, has some kind of state-funded structure. Young Israelis who want to leave the Haredi world have nothing besides a tiny handful of NGOs with meager budgets. Making your way in an environment you’re not socially or intellectually prepared for with no form of support is a daunting task.

And not all Haredi dropouts are interested in such a transition; they just want to be normal teenagers in a community that doesn’t allow for individualism or deviation from the prescribed path. You can see these bored kids hanging out in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and just about every other Haredi town and neighborhood in Israel. With nowhere else to go to, they’re easy pickings for Kahanists who offer them a sense of belonging, action and identification. 

None of this excuses anyone involved in the depraved murder of a 16-year-old. But as their identities emerge and just about every segment of Israeli society disowns them, it makes sense to try to understand the background.

No one in government or education in Israel and the Diaspora has any interest in working with this group. Haredi leaders are certainly not willing to make it easier for youngsters to defect. Support for any form of counseling or vocational training for ultra-Orthodox teens trying to make their way outside the community would be a tacit admission that this way of life doesn’t fit everyone. It would undermine a fundamental belief.

And while the government, the business community and even the army have been making limited inroads in getting Haredi men and women to join the workforce, these programs depend on cooperation with the rabbis and constant reassurances that no one is trying to get Haredim to abandon their beliefs. An official initiative to help dropouts on their difficult path would provoke an outcry against secular proselytizing. So these kids fall between the cracks.   

This is the fault of the Israeli establishment, though Jewish communities in the Diaspora share some of the blame. Very similar trends are occurring in Haredi communities in America and Europe. In many cases, parents who feel incapable of dealing with these challenges send their children to yeshivas in Israel in the hope that if they don’t straighten out, at least they won’t spoil their brothers and sisters and bring shame on the family.

Reinforced by this overseas contingent, the dark underbelly of the Haredi community grows. Forsaken by all the establishments and off the radar of social services, think tanks and demographers, these kids are prone to petty crime and extremism. 

No one should act surprised that members of this group appear involved in Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder. They are the lost children of the Jewish people; Jewish leaders have disowned them for too long. 

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