Parashat B'midbar

On Child Soldiering

We can transform the institution of Pidyon haBen to include all those who have had their childhood stolen.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

Just a year removed from the shackles of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites find themselves perched at the edge of the wilderness. Twelve tribes prepare to navigate the barren landscape that lies before them in the hopes that it will lead to a land of promise. Before departure, God instructs Moses to take a census of the Israelite community: "Count the heads of all in the tribes of Israel."   

The directive, however, does not apply to every soul in the camp, but rather to "men, aged 20 or older, who have the ability to bear arms." This addendum elucidates the true purpose of the census, which is not to count the entire population, but to serve as a form of military conscription. As commander-in-chief, Moses must know the extent of his forces should an external threat arise.

This law precludes the nation from sending its minors to war, and thus sets an important precedent in that it protects the lives of society's youngest members. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many nations plagued by ongoing military conflict today.

The Problem

No less than 21 armed forces in as many countries have violated U.N. international humanitarian laws by reinforcing their war efforts with children under the age of 18. Human Rights Watch estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 children currently serve in government forces or rebel groups around the world, some as young as eight years old. These children are forcibly recruited on pain of death, many abducted from their homes in the middle of the night. Others are made to believe that military service is the only means of escape from their current state of poverty.

Rebel groups especially prey upon children that have been displaced from their homes and have watched family members die before their eyes. Given their physical and emotional immaturity, these children are highly susceptible to brainwashing and abuse. Once innocent, they are conditioned to beat and kill civilians, burn down refugee camps, even commit atrocities against their own family members.

A Call to Action

Although the Western media has highlighted this issue in recent Hollywood films such as Blood Diamond and autobiographical memoirs like Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, the act of telling alone will not stop child soldiering. This harrowing practice must be fought not only with increased exposure, but with action and advocacy.

Intervention by peacekeeping forces is rare, but not impossible. In some countries, child soldiers are identified, demobilized and taken to rehabilitation centers that help them locate their families, return to school, receive vocational training, and re-enter civilian life. AJWS has partnered with several grassroots organizations, such as the United Movement to End Child Soldiering (UMECS) in Uganda and Ajedi-Ka in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which focus on the identification and reintegration of former child soldiers into society.

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Noam Katz

Noam Katz is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Noam recently participated in the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation to El Salvador and previously served as an AJWS Volunteer Corps participant in Uganda.