JERUSALEM: Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to Jerusalem’s streets for a mass prayer vigil Sunday in protest at plans to conscript their young men for Israeli military service.
Wearing white shirts under dark suits and donning black hats, a sea of ultra-Orthodox men and boys representing the three major streams — Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardi — were united in a rare show of power against impending legislation that could change their legal status in the Jewish state.
Bearing signs with slogans such as “war on religion” and “we will not join the military,” the masses took part in a prayer led by a cantor through huge loudspeakers set up at Jerusalem’s main road in and out of the city.
Yaakov Biton, a 28-year-old resident of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, told AFP that he and the rest of his peers from his theological seminary came to Jerusalem “to show that we are not afraid of the criminal sanctions, we are united.”
“We will win in the end, the torah will win,” said Biton.
Police said “hundreds of thousands” were taking part in the demonstration, which saw major disruption of traffic.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police were deployed to maintain order.
The protests were sparked by cuts in government funding to Jewish theological seminaries, or yeshivas, and a planned crackdown on young ultra-Orthodox men seeking to avoid Israel’s compulsory military draft.
The cabinet last year agreed to end a practice under which tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox were exempted from military service if they were in full-time yeshiva study.
New legislation is so far incomplete, but a parliamentary committee has approved a draft bill setting quotas for ultra-Orthodox men joining the military or civilian public service, to be implemented from 2017.
The proposed law allows for sanctions against men who evade service, including imprisonment, a clause that enraged the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which said it would amount to the Jewish state sending people to prison for practicing their religion.
‘Stop this persecution’
The move to force ultra-Orthodox men to serve their country is seen by many Israelis as amending the historic injustice of the exemption handed to the ultra-Orthodox in 1948, when Israel was created. At that time they were a small segment of society.
Owing to their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community has since swelled to make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s population of just over eight million, and continues to be the fastest growing group in Israel.
The current exemption from military service is only given to ultra-Orthodox men who commit to remain in their yeshivas, and who are hence not available for work.
This creates poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and is seen by Israel’s leadership as a growing threat to the national economy.
The new policy is primarily aimed at increasing ultra-Orthodox participation in the work force.
MP Nissim Zeev, of the opposition ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said the new policy amounted to religious persecution.
“The aim [of the protest] is to send an unequivocal message to the government,” he told public radio.
“Enough is enough, you must stop this persecution.”
Military service is compulsory in Israel, with men serving three years and women two.