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Tens of thousands protest plan to draft ultra-Orthodox into Israeli army

As top rabbis declare that attempts to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army constitute a ‘religious war,’ masses turned out for an anti-draft rally in Jerusalem. Violent confrontations broke out between a few demonstrators and police. Thirteen were injured and 10 arrested.

The rally was a rare show of unity between different factions (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

The rally was a rare show of unity between different factions (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Around 30,000 ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) demonstrators, many more than anticipated, showed up for a mass rally against the planned induction of Yeshiva students outside the Israeli army’s recruiting offices in Jerusalem Thursday night. The government plans to revoke a special exemption given to these ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, part of plan to “equalize of the national burden” orchestrated by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet. Rabbis on stage declared the government’s plans as “decrees of destruction” and said they are part of a “religious war” being fought between the regime and “believers,” calling on all good men to join the struggle.

“There is no room for compromise,” said Rabbi Israeli Zikerman, “just like you cannot compromise by having one eye plucked out instead of two. No child of ours will go to the army. We would rather go to prison.” Another speaker said that the rally should have taken place inside an army base, as “soldiers know that we are the ones protecting them with our studies and prayer.” The rally was attended almost solely by men, while a few women stood in small groups on its outskirts.

Rabbis called the new draft initiative a "religious war" (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Rabbis called the new draft initiative a “religious war.” (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

The rally was an unusual show of unity within otherwise rival sectors of the Ultra-Orthodox community: the extreme anti-statist and utterly anti-Zionist Ashkenazi faction of Edah HaChareidim was joined by one of the two larger and more mainstream Ashkenazi factions of the Misnagdim, who usually cooperate with the state, as well as by several prominent Sephardic rabbis and their pupils. An ultra-Orthodox journalist at the rally told me the new unity might have significant implications for the entire community, as draft laws could push moderates into extremists’ hands.

Dozens of youth set trash cans alight and confronted police (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Dozens of youth set trash cans alight and confronted police. (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Throughout the rally, a group of several dozen youths heckled police and at times threw stones, concrete blocks, dirty diapers and metal bars at riot police, while also setting trash cans on fire. Whereas a Palestinian demonstration would have been attacked after the first stone, police stood idly by through three hours of speeches, with two of them getting injured.

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man at the mass demonstration against plans to draft haredim into the Israeli army. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The second that a speaker on stage announced the rally was over, however riot and border police stormed in. Officers arrested ten people, beat up and pepper sprayed others, and used horses, batons and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. Protesters responded by torching more trash cans and throwing bottles, while speakers on stage attempted to send de-escalating messages to both sides.

Once the rally was over, police stormed in with horses and batons (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Once the rally was over, police stormed in with horses and batons. (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Parallel to the central demonstration, a small group of thirty post-J14 activists affiliated with the more radical and anti-militarist faction of the social justice movement calling themselves “Democracy or Rebellion,” demonstrated in support of the ultra-Orthodox. They decried “ongoing incitement (against the ultra-Orthodox) by the oppressive regime,” and the “divide and rule policies that are aimed to prevent the sons and daughters of the land from uniting as a civilian and multi-cultural society and fulfilling their rights,” as their leaflet stated. Police prevented the secular demonstrators from joining the religious rally.

"Citizens - not soldiers, Rights - not orders". Post-J14 activists show of suppot (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

“Citizens – not soldiers, Rights – not orders”. Post-J14 activists show support. (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

On the sidelines of the rally, the question of the occupation also led to minor confrontations. The social activists (and I myself) were asked by many why they were supportive of the ultra-Orthodox cause. While some were happy to hear the anti-militarist (and anti-Zionist) discourse, others were enraged, yelling that they want no help from “treacherous leftists who love Arabs.” They explained, “we need an army to fight our enemies and you have to serve in it while we support the cause through study and prayer.” Within the rally itself, small fist fights broke out between pro-Palestinian extreme factions and pro-state mainstream factions. These ended fairly quickly but served as a good indication of the unsolved tensions between the newly allied ultra-Orthodox camps. Their joint struggle is likely to continue in the coming weeks, and all parties announced they would hold more protests.

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    1. XYZ

      Haggai was perceptive in noting at the end of his piece that the Haredi world, while quite worried about the conscription issue, is, on the whole, pro-Zionist and pretty “right-wing” on security matters. The ideological anti-Zionist wing (“we would be better off living under non-Jewish rule”) is a pretty small minority in the Haredi world. History has been a stern teacher for the Jewish people as a whole.

      Reply to Comment
      • William Burns

        Yes, they’re pro-Zionist as long as they’re subsidized by everyone else’s taxes and can expect the rest of the population to fight for them. I don’t think its necessary to invoke the lessons of history here.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      Oh look, 10 brigades of future IDF soldiers showed up for a meeting. Either that or this is a very large gathering of soon to be bankrupt people. Throwing rocks at the police was a really brilliant move.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Haredim have immunity. They can do what they please with no consequences.

        Throw stones? No problem.

        Reply to Comment
        • In the article there’s a picture of a teenager lying on the ground with a bloodied forehead. I wouldn’t say he did as he pleased with no consequences. :/

          It’s obviously true that charedim do get given a free rein by the government on an awful lot of things. But as a community they don’t have a huge fan club in wider Israeli society, and there are enough policemen out there who would be thrilled at the opportunity to taser a few. The public sentiment against them is quite disturbing at times.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Reports I’ve seen say 8 rioters were arrested, all 8 released.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Pity, huh?

            You would love to see them sent to uranium mines, would you not?

            Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      Must say I enjoyed the organic choice of missiles here. Dirty diapers, the green answer to skunk.

      Reply to Comment
    4. When I began reading the article I wondered if there would be any show of support from anti-militarist groups who are not religious, and was happy to get to the end and see that there was.

      “We need an army to fight our enemies and you have to serve in it while we support the cause through study and prayer.”

      This logic has always puzzled me. My understanding is that they would like all Jews to become Torah-observant in the way that they are observant. If this happened, who then would fight in the army? Would it become OK to fight, or do they believe that the piety would bring about such a big change in the world that the fighting would not be needed? I don’t understand how they reconcile these things.

      Reply to Comment
      • I suspect they see themselves as specialist cells in the corporate body of Judaism. They’re sort of like heart cells protesting an order to become liver cells. I have little doubt that many of those present pray for the success of the vanguard settlers, the latter having an aggressive potential. But one needs both prayer, strict observance, and the vanguard retaking of the rightful land; neither can flourish without the other.

        Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Accordingly to their belief, if ALL Jews would become “tzadikim” (or “rashaim”) than Mashiah would come, ending the days.

        P.S. *facepalm* Why do these illiterate gentiles think that they have a right to have ANY opinion on Israel/Judaism?

        Reply to Comment
        • mike panzone

          “Why do these illiterate gentiles think that they have a right to have ANY opinion on Israel/Judaism?”

          maybe because there are gentiles who are citizens of israel??

          Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          Well, when you decided to have an opinion on Palestine and Arabs, I suppose.

          Reply to Comment
        • William Burns

          I’m a US taxpayer, for one reason.

          Reply to Comment
    5. Elisabeth

      Striking pictures with all those black hats…

      Reply to Comment
    6. kate

      I’m puzzled here, why is this happening now? Are the ultra-orthodox ‘issue’ being used to distract from the secular social protests concerning housing ect? It could seem that the ultra-orthodox are being used in the same manner that “welfare queens” were used in the US to whip up public outrage about them, while the middle class was being looted, by the time anyone caught on it was too late

      Reply to Comment
    7. rsgengland

      The easiest way of solving the Army service debate is; no service = no benefits.
      Do not use jail; that just fuels the protests.
      They know that once the subsidies go, they will have to serve, and the thought frightens them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        One could be even more creative, e.g. simply draft Haredi girls who have no obligation to study Torah etc, and since many have children at a very young age, have some creches in their military units. Girls can also listen to female singing and so on.

        But every solution, creative or stolid, will meet with demonstrations..

        Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      You asked an important question above. It is true that as the seemingly endless exile dragged on and on, the idea of having a real state with a real government and real military force receded from the Jewish conciousness, a folklorish-view of having the Mashiach (Messiah) come and waving a magic wand and ending all sorts of problems like wars, poverty and injustice once and for all became widespread, even though serious scholars know that this is not the case. Many Haredim have this view, even though it is not based on the classic Jewish sources and they will tell you that Israel won’t need an army if all Jews become like them.
      However, in reality, many know this is not the case and they view themselves rather as a vanguard of intense Jewish observance, wherease others who are not as observant, will run the state in the meantime.
      I recall reading that one of the founders of the modern Haredi movement, the Hafetz Haim (his pen-name) told his students that were drafted into the Czarist Army that they should view it as an opportunity to learn important skills that will be needed when the Messianic era arrives!

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks. I’m familiar with the idea that prayer and piety can usher in the messiah and a just world, but I would have expected people who believe in this to try and encourage the secular Jews who came in solidarity to turn religious, not to tell them they should be in the army. This is the first time I have encountered this approach.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Greer Fay Cashman

      Jews are commanded to teach their sons to swim, so that they will not drown when crossing a river. By the same token, all Jewish young men should know how to defend themselves and their communities beyond relying on Divine salvation. If the Zionist army which the haredi community so despises, were to refuse to defend that community in the event of a terror attack, would all haredim genuinely be prepared to die rather than defend their loved ones? The whole concept here should be one of Pikuach Nefesh which takes priority over almost every other commandment, because that’s what it all boils down to. Terrorists do not distinguish between one Jew and another regardless of whether the uniform is khaki or black. It’s time that the haredi community recognized this fact and prepared itself for any eventuality. It can stipulate that there must be special units in which only haredim serve, and that there be no female instructors attached to such units. The IDF would in all probability agree just as it agreed to haredi Nahal units. There are times when Jews have to overcome their differences before terror strikes, and not afterwards when everyone regardless of their stream of Judaism rushes to rescue the injured after a terrorist has launched an attack.

      Reply to Comment
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