Jerusalem — They are known as “hardakim,” and have become caught in the crossfire of the escalating battle in Israel over the ending of military draft exemptions to the fervently Orthodox, also known as haredim.
The pejorative slang is part of the haredi lexicon, and it is meant to sound like the Hebrew word for “germ.” It refers to some 3,000 haredi young men who are part of the burgeoning number of fervently Orthodox soldiers enlisting in the Israeli army. The Hebrew acronym stands for “Haredi kalut dat,” or a haredi who is flippant or has strayed from the path, and should be shunned.
As Israel’s parliament gears up to consider a bill that would end decades-long draft exemptions for tens of thousands of fervently Orthodox young men, there’s been an escalating — and sometimes violent — intimidation campaign within the haredi community against its soldiers.
A former haredi infantry soldier who now counsels other fervently Orthodox soldiers said he was used to being insulted when in uniform, but the atmosphere has gotten more dangerous.
“The haredi public has gone on the defense. They are under attack. They have become rougher,” said the former soldier, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted.
“It is now harder for a haredi soldier to come home, because he is viewed as someone coming to kidnap other kids. They are being refused entry to synagogues and have to change out of their uniforms in bus station rather than wear them in public.”
In the last two weeks, Israelis have been shocked by a string of assaults on haredi soldiers by fervently Orthodox Jews — three of them occurring in about one week. Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said that in two of the incidents officers in riot gear were called in to rescue soldiers in uniform who were surrounded by a violent mob of fervently Orthodox in and around Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood.
But the incendiary atmosphere goes beyond that: haredi groups have initiated a competition for children and adults to illustrate leaflets denouncing the haredi soldiers, and some of the most popular submissions can be found on a fervently Orthodox news website, B’hadrei Haredim.
“They are a haredi who is not actually a haredi — someone who isn’t strong,” said Natan, a 20-year-old yeshiva student who was explaining the meaning of the word “hardak.” “People are trying to denigrate them. So others won’t be swept up and follow him.”
The bill is a central promise of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s election campaign and reflects a widespread desire in the mainstream to see the haredi community “share the burden” of military service. It is triggering a backlash among the fervently Orthodox, who see it as an imposition on their entire value system.
The haredi soldiers — many of whom serve in their own special infantry unit — are seen by the mainstream as proof that the country’s burgeoning and cloistered fervently Orthodox community can indeed be integrated and that Israel can achieve more social cohesion.
But among the fervently Orthodox hardliners, the soldiers represent dangerous encroachment on their way of life by the secular Zionist state that they reject. Many in the community want it known that the soldiers will be a persona non grata back at home.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said that the overwhelming majority of haredim don’t support attacks, but the absence of a vocal condemnation from fervently Orthodox rabbis makes the problem worse for the haredi soldiers.
“They are the temporary sacrifices in the struggle, but the struggle is unavoidable,” Halevi said, referring to the draft issue. “We have no choice but to go through an ugly showdown, after which we can begin negotiating with the haredi community with a new arrangement that will leave both sides with a feeling of at least partial victory. But the explosion has to come first, because the haredi community will not negotiate a change in the status quo unless it’s forced to.”
In the streets of Mea Shearim neighborhood, angry flyers posted on the walls give an idea of the inflamed sentiment against the draft bill. One flyer calls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave the country and declares, “Better a gentile rule with Jewish education rather than Jewish rule and gentile education.” One poster portrays a cartoon of the “hardakim” running after crying young boys and loading them onto armored IDF carriers to take them away from their families.
Though fervently Orthodox political parties run for the parliament, the theological tenets of the haredi community have always negated the idea of a secular Jewish state that is not run according to the strict principles of religious law.
In the eyes of the haredi community, the Israeli military is a bastion for assimilation where fervently Orthodox men can’t observe the laws of kashrut, don’t have enough rabbis and are forced to come into contact with women. The haredi soldiers are portrayed as virtual collaborators with the government in an effort to recruit more fervently Orthodox.
“You can’t be like you are at home. Even though they promised, you can’t get kosher food. The entire army is against the Torah,” claimed Shimon Weiss, a 34-year-old kashrut supervisor. “Those that go are flippant haredim.”
Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, said the battle over the draft hits at an “existential battle” going on here. He said the atmosphere of incitement against the haredi soldiers is getting more violent and extreme. “This exposes the fact that haredi community rejects the legitimacy of the State of Israel, rejects the legitimacy of its laws and rejects the Knesset … This is about laws that they do not recognize.”
The Israeli police said that they have boosted patrols around haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem in response to the incitement. But critics say that they aren’t adequately policing haredi neighborhoods, creating a vacuum.
“Anyone that wants to make progress in drafting the ultra-Orthodox has to confront this head on,” said Jerusalem City Council member Laura Wharton, who helped organize a protest on the soldiers’ behalf two weeks ago. “Unless this is dealt with effectively it will be a deterrent to the ultra-Orthodox who want to go into the army.”