Opinion | Opinion

Haredi leaders must speak out against zealots

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The recent violence in Beit Shemesh and 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 is the name given to a fringe anti-Zionist vigilante group, loosely linked to Neturei Karta and said to have been at the head 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. And I do not use this comparison lightly — as the founder of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization, I understand only too well the horror of terror.

These haredi Orthodox hooligans have wreaked havoc through harassment and violence for far too long. It doesn’t really matter how they justify their actions; often they are just bored and find excuses later. Whatever the reason, 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 haredi community, whose collective reputation and image are being tarred by their individual brush.

There would be communal outcry if terrorists dressed up as haredim, attacked a bus in Mea Shearim, broke its windows and injured innocent men, women and children. However, if haredim themselves do something similar in the name of religious zealotry, it is somehow condoned by a cloak of silence spread across the haredi community. This double standard has to end, and I call upon haredi community leaders who deplore their actions 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 they represent the entire haredi Orthodox community in Israel. This terrible generalization could not be further from the truth and 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 all too 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 yeshiva 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 began to use my organizational skills and contacts to build a framework in which young haredi Orthodox men could volunteer and 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 haredi Jews, once viewed as outsiders who did not serve their country, 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 U.N.-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 not certainly not just haredi Orthodox Jews.

Authentic Judaism is not about highlighting differences and attacking those who do not share your worldview. It is about bringing the world closer to perfection, tikkun olam, working together for the sake of the greater good. As a haredi leader, I felt the need to publicly distance myself from these fanatics who 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.

(Yehuda Meshi-Zahav is the founder and chairman of the ZAKA Rescue and Recovery Organization (www.zaka.us ), which has 1,650 volunteers in Israel and international rescue units around the world that have assisted at natural disasters in Japan and Haiti and terror attacks in Mumbai and Mombasa.)