The story of the Cantonists is one of the most reprehensible examples of how Jews behaved to other Jews. The rich, the powerful, the religious authorities all took unforgivable advantage of their positions to get themselves off the hook at the expense of the poor.
Russia included the majority of the Jews in the world in the nineteenth century. Czar Nicholas 1st, who came to the throne unexpectedly in 1825, was a crude anti-Semite who wanted to rid Russia of its Jews. He devised a system that would use military service as a way of cutting young Jews off from their families and communities and converting them to Russian Orthodoxy. In 1827 he introduced compulsory military service for all Jews from age twelve to twenty-five to serve for twenty-five years!
All conscripts under the age of seventeen would be assigned to Cantons, military schools inside military camps originally set up a century earlier to train young recruits, before being sent to regiments. Whilst there, they would be denied Jewish requirements and subjected to a harsh and intensive conversion regime. Life would be made easier for those who converted, and progressively tougher for those who refused. These kids were called Cantonists.
Almost a hundred thousand Jewish children suffered under the system before it was abolished in 1855, after Czar Nicholas died. But of that number the vast majority died or disappeared under the most cruel and harsh of conditions. Conscription continued, but equally for all citizens and many Jews served in the Russian army, including my grandfather. Even into the early twentieth century many Jewish young men voluntarily deformed themselves or removed their teeth to avoid the agonies of conscription. But nothing could compare to the sadistic regime these thousands of little Jewish Cantonist children were put through.
But there is another dimension to this episode that is in some ways equally disturbing. Government set a quota of conscripts for each community and it was up to the Jewish authorities to fulfil these quotas on pain of fines and imprisonment. Naturally, no Jewish parents wanted their sons to go through this ordeal, which was usually a death sentence. The Jewish officials were in a difficult position and open to inducements. The rich and the influential got their children off, by bribery or persuasion. This meant that the poor and the weak, suffered inordinately.
When community officials could not meet their quotas, they employed chappers (from the Yiddish “to grab”), Jews who were paid to bring in conscripts, rather like the British naval press gangs. They would act like a cross between bounty hunters and gangsters. There are documented reports of mothers running behind the carts that carried their kidnapped children in cages, begging for their release, sometimes of an only son or the sole provider for a poor widow.
One of the worst aspects of this was that the rabbis, whom you might have thought the poor and the weak could have turned to for support, were themselves only too willing to protect their own. There are records of debates as to whether it was right to send of a young man who was not religious instead of one who was, or the son of a poor Jewish peasant rather than the son of a rabbi. There is plenty of research on all this. An example is a small, easily accessible book by Larry Domnitch called The Cantonists.
But I want to take the matter further and argue that this sort of discriminating attitude is still with us, although of course not under quite the same circumstances. Too many of us still think that if I can buy or fiddle or bargain myself a privilege at the expense of someone else, then why not? Who cares about moral arguments?
When casualties of the Lebanon War came out, it became clear that most of them were from poorer, disadvantaged families, predominantly new immigrants. And of those who were Ashkenazi, a very high proportion were religious Zionist young men who had studied in yeshivot and were ideologically committed. But more and more of the Tel Aviv beau monde, the Shenkin elite, the privileged children of the wealthy were skipping the draft. Let the poor put their lives in danger, not us!
As for the ultra-Orthodox, there are now over thousands and thousands of able-bodied young men, not all particularly interested in study, who are given automatic exemption. When the Chazon Ish, the great rabbinic figure in Israel when the state was founded, persuaded Ben Gurion to exempt yeshiva students from military service, there were a few a hundred involved. Now it is approaching 50,000. This cannot be morally justified.
I agree that scholarly types, the academically exceptional, might claim and merit postponement or exemption. But sixty years ago ultra-Orthodoxy was hanging on by a thread. Now it is powerful, rampant, wealthy, and growing. If it insists that only the non-religious, or those it disapproves of, go into battle, then there is something morally and ethically wrong. Even if I agree prayer and spirituality matter as well as fighting men, nevertheless one still needs trained soldiers ready to fight.
The trouble is that everything in Israel is a political crap game of wheeler-dealing negotiation that starts from a tough, seemingly immovable bargaining position in order to squeeze as many concessions as possible. Everyone does this, regardless of party. This means ethics or morality doesn’t get a look in. I no longer expect the Knesset to be moral, but I do look to religious leaders at least to make the effort.
Israel today reminds me of the unholy alliance between the Rich, the Rabbis, and the Chappers, all taking advantage of the poor and the weak, buying or bargaining for privileges, sending some into the army risking death, while others sleep soundly in protected beds. O Isaiah, where are you now!