The Tragic Deflation of Language and Symbols

Recently a Haredi IDF soldier sued a cartoonist for defaming haredim who serve in the Israeli Military.  The picture which has been widely circulated on the internet depicts a bearded IDF soldier crashing through a wall in pursuit of wide eyed terrified little Hardei children. If you look closely you can see that the soldier is attached to a string that is held at the other end by a hand belonging to someone who stands outside the frame of the picture. The implication is clear, the few Haredi soldiers who do serve in the IDF are nothing more than puppets on a string being pulled by the surreptitious hand of the secular State. What is also abundantly clear, is that the soldier is cast in the role the dreaded Khaper of nineteenth century Russia. The Khapers literally ‘snatchers’ were Jews who colluded with the police of  Tsar Nicholas I in snatching innocent Jewish children to serve under brutal conditions in his military for a minimum term of twenty five years. Many of the victims who were torn from their families and communities were never heard from again. The Cantonists, as they were called, are the subject of one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. 


This is not the first time Haredim have exploited some of the most harrowing images of collective Jewish history for their own political causes. It wasn’t all that long ago that scores of Haredim in Israel donned yellow stars and concentration camp garb to highlight their “victimisation” by secular Israelis who by implication are cast as Nazis. And it’s happened yet again only recently when Rabbi Shalom Cohen of Yeshivat Porat Yosef publicly condemned the National Religious  knitted kipah wearing Jews  as “Amalek” the biblical foe of the Children of Israel and the prototype of all Anti Semites to follow.


This trend is disturbing for two reasons.


The first is that it precipitates a deflation of language and symbols. When I was a kid Nazis were demons, Tsarist colluders were cruelty itself and Amalek was the embodiment of Evil. As a result of Haredi misuse these terms and symbols have become cheapened. Does it matter? It certainly does because language and symbols are important ways in which we convey history. When they no longer mean what they used to mean it undermines our collective memory. The very image of a ruddy cheeked, well fed Haredi child wearing striped pyjamas and a yellow Star of David on a balmy Jerusalem night undercuts the potency of real holocaust era photographs to convey the horror of that period.


The second thing that is disturbing is how this trend excludes other Jews from Judaism by equating them with Judaism’s sworn enemies. And once this begins the exclusion zone gets broader and broader. A year and a half ago the Haredi concentration camp garb protest implied that secular Israelis were persecuting the Jewish people and by implication not really Jewish themselves. Now we have Rabbi Cohen with his Amalek comments extending the exclusion to Non- Haredi Orthodox Jews. The Haredi Cartoonist has gone even further to exclude fellow Haredi Jews who serve in the IDF. It’s only a matter of time before various haredi sects start denouncing each other in the same way.


Perhaps if Haredim insist on staying with the holocaust theme they would do well to read and reflect on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “First they came for me.” Hopefully they will get the message before they have excluded from Judaism all other Jews who are different from them. At the very least they should take note of Avtalyon’s dictum: “Sages, be careful in what you say, lest you incur the penalty of exile and find yourself banished to a place of evil waters, where your disciples who follow you may drink from them and die, with the result that the name of Heaven will be profaned.” (Mishna Avot 1:11)



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