(RNS) Much of Jerusalem was paralyzed Sunday by a demonstration of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews against a bill that would require many of them to serve in the military.
The main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was closed, and transportation within the city was severely disrupted. Offices and schools closed early. More than 3,500 police stood watch.
The rally, part protest, part prayer vigil, was organized by the religious and political leadership of the insular haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel, which strongly opposes mandatory conscription on the grounds that it would tear yeshiva students from their full-time religious studies.
They, and their counterparts throughout the world, are particularly incensed that the bill would criminalize yeshiva students who evade service.
Prior to the demonstration, Rabbi Ahron Teitelbaum, the New York-based head of the ultra-conservative Satmar Hassidim worldwide, told his followers, “We aren’t afraid of beating and whipping, we’re not afraid to sit in jail, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves. We went through the (Spanish) Inquisition and Auschwitz, and the strength of (Israel) will not lie,” according to Yeshiva World News.
The haredi draft exemption has become an ever-hotter flashpoint between ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox Jews. All non-haredi Jewish men and women are required to serve three and two years, respectively. Some non-Jews, mostly Druze and Bedouin, serve, while others perform civilian service.
Israel’s High Court struck down the law exempting haredi yeshiva students from being drafted back in 2012, but the government has repeatedly postponed conscription due to demands from the country’s ultra-Orthodox political parties, who represent many of the country’s 800,000 haredim – roughly 10 percent of Israeli’s population.
Many Israelis think it is unfair that haredi men do not serve in the military. In addition, many haredi men opt for religious studies over paid employment, and the community refuses to teach basic subjects such as math and English in school, which makes those haredim who do want to join the workforce — and there are reportedly many — unqualified for most jobs.
Nissim Leon, an expert on haredim at Bar-Ilan University, said the community opposes conscription due to ideology, not laziness.
“They believe they are protecting the soul of the Jewish people and the nation, and that that is their contribution,” Leon said. “Additionally, they’re afraid that if their children go to the army, they will be exposed to the outside world and not remain haredi.”
Shachar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom and equality, said the exemption places a burden on those who do serve.
“People risk their lives, so the fact that one sector of the Jewish public doesn’t serve is problematic and tearing the country apart.”
Ilan said the problem is also demographic.
“Right now about 15 percent of Jewish 18-year-olds are haredi, but eight years from now, their proportion of the population will be 26 percent due to their high birth rate.”
At the rally, men and boys dressed in black coats and black hats carried placards declaring “Military service will not be imposed on us” and “Jews cannot survive without the Torah.” Due to the community’s standards of modesty, women and children stood on separate streets, praying.
Standing in a sea of men, Yaniv Ben Mashiach, a 16-year-old haredi high school student, vowed he would not join the military when he turns 18 because “Torah is the highest service.”
David Waldman, a 19-year old yeshiva student from the U.S. who immigrated to Israel two years ago, said he respects the young men and women who serve in the army.
“Soldiers and yeshiva students both have a role to play. We believe the reason Israel has survived to this day is because of the study of Torah. Together, we and the soldiers on the battlefield sustain Israel.”
Standing in the men’s section of the demonstration — and asked by some of the men to leave for reasons of modesty — Naama Tshuva, 25, a secular Israeli woman, said she was “impressed by the haredi community’s ability to unite in a way that secular society never does.”
Tshuva, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt so different from the long skirts of the haredi women, said the draft bill “really isn’t the issue. The issue is that the haredi community has largely cut itself off from the rest of society, and the army, like the workplace, is a place for all of us to get to know one another better. There’s a lot of hatred on both sides, and that hurts everyone.”
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