Two singers in civilian clothes had been invited to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion's swearing-in ceremony Sunday at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill. Part of their job was to provide musical accompaniment to the long process of bestowing weapons and Bibles to some 100 soldiers in the Haredi battalion's latest induction ceremony.
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The first song they sang was "Ayeka,"originally by Shuli Rand. “Here is a Jew hanging on by a hairbreadth,” they sang, probably not realizing how accurately their words captured the ceremony's melancholy spirit.
The induction of the new recruits into what is popularly known as Nahal Haredi was supposed to take place last Thursday. The Israel Defense Forces decided to move the ceremony to a closed base, fearing it would be disrupted by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, but the outcry this decision caused led the army to reverse its decision.
There was a heavy police presence, even though there was nary a protester in sight. On the contrary, a group of Haredim had come to show solidarity, and an impressive array of family members filled the audience. Because of the controversy, Central Command chief Nitzan Alon attended, as did Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan.
The storm over Haredi conscription is raging and the soldiers serving in the IDF’s Haredi frameworks are in the eye of the storm. For weeks now, even before the Perry committee completed its work on legislation to draft Haredim, these soldiers have been marked enemies of the community by extremists. And as usual, the silent majority has remained silent.
With the Haredi press fueling the animosity by declaring the government’s moves “decrees of annihilation,” it’s little wonder some people see ultra-Orthodox soldiers as collaborating with the annihilators. At best, they're referred to as hardakim – haredim kalei da’at, those lacking judgment, an acronym coined by a poster campaign in Haredi neighborhoods. At worst, they're cursed at, booted out of synagogues, or even physically assaulted, as in a case last week in Jerusalem.
Even without the current mess, it’s not easy for the Netzah Yehuda soldiers. The overwhelming majority, at least judging by the people in the audience, are not from mainstream Haredi communities. Apparently they enlisted after many years of frustration in yeshiva. Among this minority are some who’ve been cut off by their families.
Three young men from prestigious yeshivas, Hevron and Ponovezh, came to the ceremony to support a friend they had studied with until two years ago. His family wasn’t there.
“I support his decision to enlist, but it’s a crazy step,” one of the yeshiva students said. “You need a lot of guts to do this, the same courage you need to enter Gaza when terrorists are firing at you from every direction – maybe even more.”
During the ceremony there was an obvious effort to make the new recruits feel appreciated in light of the current controversy. "Netzah Yehuda is the flagship of Haredi military service in the IDF,” said Kfir Brigade commander Udi Ben Moha.
Rafael and Yael Neiman, a Haredi couple, had accompanied their son Shmuli to the ceremony. “I’m proud,” Rafael said, with Yael adding that the two were "very proud. This is what he chose to do, and we’ll support him to the end.
“Of course, our worldview is that Torah study is our life and the heart of the nation. That’s why these days are very difficult for us. We're very worried. I feel there’s a serious lack of communication. The secular world has no understanding of the essence of Torah study, that Torah is our life.”