By Rabbi Natan Slifkin
August 29—By now you have all heard that the body of Aaron Sofer has been found. He fell during a hike, and died as a result of his injuries. While the search was under way, a number of people, including prominent figures, accused the State of Israel and the general public of being relatively indifferent to the cause due to Sofer being a chareidi yeshiva student. The purpose of this post is to defend the government and general public of Israel against this condemnation.
It is not an exceptional event for people to go missing in Israel. There have been several cases in the last year. Every year the police in Israel process around 5,000 reports on missing persons. Most of these cases are quickly closed, but 20 to 30 cases remain open each year. According to a Jerusalem Post article from two years ago, there are currently over 1,000 children and teens in Israel listed as missing. How many of them have you heard about? Cases of missing persons do not generally make the headlines, because there can be all sorts of reasons for it. The situation of a missing person only makes headlines to the extent that it is believed to be a terrorist abduction. One might argue that this is not rational—after all, the potential for tragedy is the same, whether a person has a hiking accident or a car accident or is abducted by terrorists. However, the fact of human psychology is that society is more traumatized by the latter. Furthermore, the latter is more part of the government’s responsibility and purview, and thus the government expends more effort in such cases.
Now, in the chareidi community, it was widely believed that Aaron Sofer had been abducted. A family member publicly quoted Rav Chaim Kanievsky as saying that Sofer was alive and being held in an Arab village. There was, naturally, deep concern. But outside of the chareidi community, few believed that this was the case. Especially at the outset, there was little reason to believe that Aaron Sofer had been abducted. Personally, I was certain that he had experienced a hiking accident. I have hiked in that area many times and I know that the terrain can sometimes be deceptive, with unexpected crevasses. Furthermore, it would be extremely unlikely for terrorists to be staking out that area in the hopes of capturing somebody. Since it was unlikely that he had been abducted, there was naturally less of a response than in the case of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, where it was clear from the outset that they had been abducted.
But could it be that there was less concern from the general public than in comparable cases? I don’t think that there is sufficient data to answer that question. If one believes that such was the case, there are a number of potential factors involved. One is that he was an American citizen rather than an Israeli citizen; another is that he was a chareidi yeshiva student. As I noted in my posts contrasting the great concern that the chareidi community expressed for the yeshiva students in Japan with the lesser concern that they expressed for Gilad Shalit, to a certain extent (though only to a certain extent) it is inevitable and understandable that people care more about those in their own community. Indeed, consider that some sectors of the chareidi community seem to have put a lot more effort into prayer rallies and suchlike for Aaron Sofer than they did for Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali. We should aim to care about all Jews, but it is inevitable that we care more about those to whom we feel closest. How many Jews in America, or chareidi Jews in Israel, know the name Shachar Shalev, a 20-year-old soldier who was struggling for his life for the last six weeks as a result of injuries sustained in Gaza, and finally succumbed this week?
Brooklyn city council member Dov Hikind issued a criticism of the Israeli authorities that was particularly strange: “Not enough was done from the very beginning. Not enough attention was paid to the disappearance of Aaron. So I want to say to the Israeli government: treat Aaron as if he were an Israeli soldier missing. Because we know what the Israeli government does when an Israeli soldier goes missing—every resource in the world is put into it.”
I do not think that his criticism of the government was appropriate. Less effort is put into these things when there is little reason to suspect terrorist involvement. The government does not put “every resource in the world” into searching for each of the 20–30 people who go missing each year. Furthermore, aside from the fact that Sofer wasn’t Israeli, he wasn’t a soldier. Of course a country will be far more concerned with the welfare of someone risking his life to defend it than with the welfare of a person who is not doing that! Likewise, I presume that people donate more money to those who are disabled as a result of IDF service than to those who are disabled as a result of car accidents. One person wrote to me about the irony of a community that refuses to serve in the army to protect the country, but demands to be treated like soldiers in terms of the concern extended to them.
(Also of interest is that Rav Steinman ordered yeshiva students to take time off their learning and search for him. Evidently, Rav Steinman felt that this hishtadlus would be of greater value than their learning Torah in his merit. This is consistent with Rav Steinman’s position, as told to Rav Moshe Schneider, that today’s Torah cannot be presumed to be lishmah and therefore cannot be assumed to have supernatural protective abilities. We see that Rav Steinman’s position is that the opposition to chareidim serving in the IDF or doing national service is not because their Torah studies is a form of providing protection, but rather because army service would harm their way of life.)
The case of Aaron Sofer is a terrible tragedy. But it is not a reason to criticize the government or people of Israel. Let us pray for the Sofer family to be comforted, and for all missing persons to be located. v
The author maintains a blog at www.rationalistjudaism.com.