The Oct. 7 Hamas massacre has led to a societal shift in thinking when it comes to personal defense in Israel. Previously content to let the official security forces handle such matters, Israelis now want to protect themselves.
Perhaps nowhere is this switch more dramatic than in the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, community.
Haredi Jews have shunned not only self-defense but sharing in the nation’s defense, avoiding army service in favor of religious study (a fact which has led to an undercurrent of hostility—occasionally contributing to political upheaval—among the largely secular public).
“Up until now, haredi people didn’t take part in such things. They didn’t look at it as their job,” said Roni Ayalon Hirsch, a former special forces operator in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance) unit, who heads a new group, Mishmar Ha’am (“The People’s Guard”), the first to train haredim in firearms and community defense.
To their credit, though haredim had the furthest to go in terms of a change in mindset, they seem to have turned on a dime. “We actually thought there’d be more opposition,” Hirsch said rattling off a list of admorim—leaders of hassidic dynasties—who have given their blessing to the training.
Judaism has no qualms about taking up arms. There are mitzvot, or religious injunctions, to prepare for defense, said Hirsch. What changed is a shift in focus as reality set in.
“They saw what happened in the south. There was no army and no police. And it could take hours until they come. So everybody understands that there is a very high possibility that they will have to handle themselves in such an attack on their homes. It’s not so far-fetched,” said Hirsch.
“There’s a common, basic feeling of a lack of security after the attack,” he said.
Since the Hamas assault, as of Oct. 30, the Israeli National Security Ministry has received 180,500 new applications for personal firearms permits. An average of 10,000 new requests are received every day (vs. 850 requests per week prior to the outbreak of hostilities).
Hirsch, who is a ba’al teshuvah, meaning one coming to religion from a secular background, joined the Breslov branch of hassidism. He was asked to run the People’s Guard group because of his military background by Mishmar’s umbrella organization, Achim L’Oref, (“Brothers to the Homefront”).
Brothers to the Homefront is a haredi initiative, a new organization comprising a number of haredi groups that came together following the Hamas attack.
Its goal is to help meet the nation’s needs, to promote unity and to strengthen what it calls societal “resilience.”
“With most secular people going to the war and in miluim [military reserves], we also want to show that we’re not going on with our lives as if nothing has happened,” said Hirsch.
The Brothers group is engaged in many activities, from helping the wounded to providing economic assistance to families that have suffered loss in the horrific Hamas attack.
The Mishmar group is the defense pillar of the Brothers group. It has set up training in 20 locations across the country with about 100 volunteers in each one. Hirsch said he hopes to expand Mishmar to 40 locations.
Haredi communities are, if anything, more in need of defense training than other populations, as many are in areas suffering from constant tension with Arab neighbors, including neighborhoods in Jerusalem and in cities like Beit Shemesh, Elad and Bitar Illit.
Haredim are also prime targets for Arab terrorists as it’s well known that they are overwhelmingly unarmed—at least until now.
Mishmar offers a first-tier training for unarmed guards. The day-long course teaches volunteers how to patrol their neighborhoods, how to spot something suspicious, and what to do in case of an incident.
Armed guards go through a more rigorous course—four days between five and six hours each day.
Hirsch said the main difference between teaching haredim and other Israelis when it comes to handling firearms is that the former have had no prior training. So many are now arming themselves that it’s dangerous in its own right if they don’t learn how to properly handle their firearms, he said.
Training is conducted with the help of another organization with which Mishmar partnered, called Hashomer Hachadash, (“The New Guard”). Hashomer, founded in 2007, generally protects farms in the Galilee and Negev, mainly from Arab pillaging.
“Now they also started guarding different villages and even urban areas,” Hirsch said. “So we contacted Hashomer to help us, first of all, to build this volunteer movement and also to train the volunteers.”
The plan is to prepare haredim to guard their own neighborhoods and then in the future also to go out to agricultural areas to help protect farms, which remain under constant threat from thieves.