"Our boys in captivity need help! They need our tefillos! And they need financial contributions to assist in efforts for their release. Please open your hearts, for this critical mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim!"
That was the gist of a full-page ad on the back page of Mishpachah magazine that I just saw. Who are "our boys in captivity"? It was referring to the unfortunate yeshivah bochrim that are imprisoned in Japan for smuggling what they thought were antiquities but which turned out to be drugs.
It's certainly a terrible situation. But let us indulge in a thought-experiment. Japanese prisons are certainly not fun places in which to be incarcerated, but imagine if these students were, Heaven forbid, being faced with torture and execution. Can you imagine how much greater would be the outcry in the frum community?
Now, imagine if these boys were not even guilty of knowingly smuggling anything at all. Wouldn't we feel even more sympathy for them?
And imagine if, not only were they not guilty of smuggling anything, but at the time of arrest they were on a dangerous mission on behalf of the frum community. Imagine how much more we would be up in arms over the fate of such heroes!
Well, there is such a person in such a situation. Gilad Shalit is being held by Hamas, captured while on duty in the IDF, protecting Israel. And how much do we hear about him in the Charedi media, in the charedi yeshivas, in the charedi shuls?
No articles in the newspapers. No major fundraising/lobbying campaigns. No Yom Tefillah. No learning in his zechus. No mishberachs in shuls. (In the non-charedi shul where I usually davven on Shabbos, they say a misheberach for him, whereupon the one charedi mispallel religiously takes out a book and sits down to read it.)
Sure, there is the odd exception. In the Aish Kodesh shul in Ramat Bet Shemesh, the very special Rav spoke about Gilad Shalit before ne'ilah on Yom Kippur. But he is an unusual person, and very much the exception. Amongst American charedim, you might hear Shalit's name mentioned here and there, but nowhere near as much as the celebrity captives such as the boys in Japan, Sholom Rubashkin, and, in the past, "Reb" Martin Grossman. Amongst Israeli charedim, you virtually never hear Shalit's name. Why?
Now, I have heard it argued that the cases are different in that with the bochrim in Japan, it is clear what needs to be done and how to use the money raised to accomplish that. With Shalit, on the other hand, it's not clear what to do. Should we be pressing the Israeli government to exchange terrorists for his release, or not? Many people are against such a trade, or are simply confused as to what is best.
But that argument is insufficient. First of all, there are plenty of ways that funds could clearly be used for his good - such as lobbying in the international media, which puts pressure on Hamas to, at the very least, keep him alive and in good health. Second of all, aren't we religious Jews? What about prayer, performing mitzvos in his merit, keeping his fate in the public consciousness - showing that we care?
The answer is that the yeshivah students in Japan are seen as "our boys." Shalit, a secular Israeli soldier, is not "one of us."
Now, to a certain extent, that is understandable. Human beings always care more about those with whom they identify more, and they identify more with those in their community. Countries care more about their own citizens. You care more about your family and neighbors than someone you don't know.
Yet while that is somewhat of a limmud zechus, it is not a justification. Everyone should be striving to care about the fate of every Jew - certainly someone in such a terrible situation, captured while serving the people. Furthermore, one must wonder by what measure exactly the yeshivah bochrim in Japan are seen as being "our boys," but not Shalit. Certainly many American charedi Jews are no closer culturally to chassidishe Israelis from Mea Shearim than to a secular Israeli. And it's not just a matter of religion; if Shalit were dati-leumi, I don't think it would make a difference. How religious was Martin Grossman? But his "teshuvah" led him to be adopted by the charedi community and subsequently his fate was identified as being a charedi cause. I suspect that the problem with Shalit is not that he's not shomer mitzvos; it's that he's in the IDF. God forbid to show that we care about an IDF soldier - it might send the wrong message to the community, and before you know it, our young men will be going to hesder!
This sort of phenomenon was one of the factors in my dissatisfaction with being in the charedi community (even before the ban on my books). There are good reasons for insularism, but when it comes at the cost of identifying with klal Yisrael (or rather, redefining klal Yisrael as "the charedi community"), then I think that something is seriously wrong. To be sure, there are exceptions, such as Uri Lupolianski and Yad Sarah, etc. But, in general, and as highlighted by the inequality between the concern for "our boys in Japan" and the lack of concern for Gilad Shalit, the charedi community simply does not adequately see itself as being part of the Jewish nation.
Ironically, it is this sort of attitude that caused the tragedy of the yeshivah boys in Japan. As Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, editor of the late Jewish Observer, once told me, lack of respect for civil law is a great problem in the charedi community. But what is the cause of this? In part, it's probably a cultural hangover from Europe, where the government really was the enemy. But that's not all of it; another component is the very insularism which characterizes the charedi community. When you don't see yourself as being a citizen of a country, you have less respect for civil law. There was a notorious Kupat Ha-Ir campaign which told the "inspirational" story of how someone decided to donate money to Kupat Ha-Ir, and as a result managed to smuggle items into Israel without being caught! And I once saw a cartoon in a Charedi magazine which showed a Chareidi schoolbus, overloaded with children, outwitting a policeman by having them hide on the floor - silly chiloni! With such an attitude being prevalent, is it any wonder that it was so easy to bribe some young men into smuggling?
We need to appreciate the importance of not just being a part of our micro-community, but also members of Am Yisrael and citizens of the State of Israel, as well as inhabitants of planet earth. We need to care about all our boys in captivity - but most of all for those who are innocent heroes, and who are in the worst situation.
(To find out more about Gilad Shalit, see this website)