News / Middle East

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally Against Israeli Draft Law

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rally in a massive show of force against plans to force them to serve in the Israeli military, blocking roads and paralyzing the city of Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rally in a massive show of force against plans to force them to serve in the Israeli military, blocking roads and paralyzing the city of Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a mass prayer in Jerusalem on Sunday in protest at a bill that would cut their community's military exemptions and end a tradition upheld since Israel's foundation.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders had called on their men, women and children to attend the protest against new legislation ending the wholesale army exemptions granted to seminary students, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks.

The issue is at the heart of an emotional national debate. Most Israeli Jewish men and women are called up for military service when they turn 18, but most ultra-Orthodox Jews, or "Haredim", a Hebrew term meaning 'those who tremble before God', are excused from army service.

Police said hundreds of thousands took part in the prayer. Israeli media estimated that between 250,000 to 400,000 attended.

The ultra-Orthodox demonstration paralyzed parts of Jerusalem, blocked the main entrance to the city and halted public transport as the streets around swelled with streams of men in black hats and coats, the traditional Haredi garb.

Rabbis wailed prayers over loudspeakers as the standing crowds swayed back and forth, repeating a plea to God to stop the law from being passed.

"We want to show that we are united and we want to stop a bad thing that they are trying to force us into. The army is not our way of life. It is not run by our rabbis," said 18-year-old Mordechai Seltzer.

Haredim say the study of holy scriptures is a foundation of Jewish life, that scholars have a right to devote themselves full time to the tradition, and that army service would deny them fulfilment of that religious edict.

A 'crime' to study Torah

"The (new) law stipulates that a person who studies Torah might end up a criminal. Are we really going to allow it to become a crime to study the Torah?" said Guy, 43.

Seventeen-year-old Israel, a seminary student who came to Israel from the United States, said his community would not give in.

"There are so many of us that they cannot fight us. We are not worried. We do not want to fight them, but we are not going to do what they tell us to do," he said.

Haredim make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million people. They are a fast-growing and relatively poor social group. Most Haredi men are unemployed and live off state benefits, donations and their wives' often low wages.

The ultra-Orthodox community is resented by many Israelis who accuse the Haredim of burdening the economy and sponging off the state while avoiding the duties that bind others.

Changing the so-called secular-religious status quo in Israel has carried significant political risk in the past for its coalition governments, which have often relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox partners.

But now, for the first time in a decade, Israel's cabinet has no ultra-Orthodox members and main coalition partners have pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enact reforms under a slogan of "sharing the burden", so an ultra-Orthodox backlash poses little danger of destabilizing the government.

A parliamentary committee has been formulating the new conscription bill for months. Though its supporters hail it as a historic step, critics say it will only be implemented in four years' time and by then a new coalition government that could overturn the law would be in power.

"They don't need us in the army. This is a cultural show of force. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing very fast and the other part of the country is worried. They want to get us into their army. Zionism is not about going into the army," said Maurice, 19, a seminary student from New York.

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Comment Sorting
by: c1lived666 from: MI, USA
March 03, 2014 3:25 AM
The ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, by their protest in Jerusalem on 2 March 2014, have shown a complete lack of ability to comprehend and/or seemingly care about the unfair burden that they are imposing upon all non-Haredim Israeli citizens. By their demonstration in Jerusalem they have, for all practical purposes, “Bitten the hand that feeds them”.

Someone has to pay the bills and defend the Nation. In a democracy the people entrust that authority and decision making to their elected government officials. When anyone group of people, in this case the Haredim, proclaim that they do not have to serve in the military like the rest of the Israeli people, and where a great many of them are on Government dole, then there is clearly something wrong either with a society that does not demand that their government to do something to change such an unfair, unequal and unjust situation, or there is a government—for whatever reason(s)—that either cannot or will not do what is necessary, through legislative action, to bring the Haredim out of their current reclusive, counter-productive mind-set and into a 21st century Israel where all Israeli citizens are ‘equally sharing the burden’.

Fortunately there is currently an Israeli Government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has taken on this issue by passing into law legislation requiring the Haredim to serve in the Israeli Military, just like any other physically and mentally competent Israel man or woman; something that no other previous Israeli government has been willing or able to do. Now it is up to the current government, along with the support of the nearly 90% non-Haredim Israeli people, to see that the “Sharing of the burden” comes to full fruition…where upon all Israel citizens will more equally share the burden of maintaining the economic and defense responsibilities of their Nation.

by: Moe Ginsburg
March 02, 2014 9:32 PM
The Ultra-Orthodox are pacifists very opposed to war. They've opposed the War of Independence in '48 and every war since. They've been opposed to Zionism long before the State of Israel came into existence in '48 and have remained so ever since. And despite continuing to live in the country after it changed from Palestine to Israel in '48 they are vocally in support of Israel giving land to the Arabs for peace.

The Ultra-Orthodox are conscientious objectors to war in Israel much like the Amish in America - who also are exempt from the U.S. draft and when there is a draft the U.S. Selective Service exempts them from serving.

by: USMC from: USA
March 02, 2014 5:53 PM
look i am sure its not easy serving in the Israeli military services - no one suggests that it is or that it will be anytime in the future.

With an average arduous boot camp of 9-12 months and subsequent 12 months of specialization... Israel's "regular" military service - not their special forces - will do pride to our SEALS in physical exertion, and the crucible of their psychological trainings is not even recognized here. So, its not easy... but the Jews benevolent pacifism and their absolute reluctance to even be in position where they might be required to take a life - should be respected but counterbalanced in consideration of their murderous environment - hey, they live in the most brutal region in the world - they live in the Heart of Islamic depravity...
Israel should set up a less demanding track in their military service designed for conscientious objectors - advanced medical services - for example - will appeal to so many of the Orthodox Jewish community. - and if we really wanted to be racists here we could also say that the best medical doctors in the world are jewish - hey, we all know that.. so lets not be too coy about it.

by: c1lived666 from: MI, USA
March 02, 2014 3:45 PM
For any person, male or female, to devote their entire lives to the study of their religious scriptures is I see it, and honorable way of life and/or profession. I say “and/or” because “way of life” is what one does not expecting to be compensated for it while a profession is something that one does not only because they believe in it and enjoy their work, it also provides them a living. Therefore the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, are pursuing ‘a way of life’ that is lacking one essential element, the ability to support themselves and, if married, their family. As it stands now the Haredim expect the rest of Israel to bow down to their needs and provide them with all of the necessities of life (while they sit and study scriptures) and that they, the Haredim, ever making a fair and reasonable contribution—as a contributing working member--too their society and Nation. In my mind, and I think in the mind of any reasonable person, the Haredims view of their place in Israel is just wrong. In a society and Nation no group of people can sustain for long believing that they alone are so valuable or so holy that the rest of the Nation must see to most, if not all, of the daily needs. Such a contrivance is an undue burden on and Nation and cannot stand without out something having to change.

Not even Monks and Nuns devote their entire time to studying the Bible. An even where Holy Men, not unlike the Janinist Holy men of India—who, renounce all materiel things including clothes and only eat, sleep, preach and resolve issues where the faithful invite them in, even they do so because it is not only a way of like but ‘career’. One would think that everyone knows that--in some form or manner—one must earn and pay their ‘own way’ in life. And, as the current Israeli Knesset is now doing, they are making a start to correct an issue in Israel that has existed for far too long. And change must come as Israeli is far too small of a Nation that without everyone (Of course the children, elderly, disabled, and the sick are a given exception in nearly every society) marking a reasonable contribution to their Nations welfare, Israel simply cannot not stand. It is then unconscionable for the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, to expect the rest of the Israeli Nation to support them.

by: Wesley from: Texas
March 02, 2014 2:48 PM
There are multiplied thousands in America (and around the world) from the other tribes (Ephraim) who are Torah submissive. And we are looking forward to the day when we can join with Judah and swoop down on the enemy. Let the Haredim study the Torah...and let Ephraim come home and help out. Keep this in mind when the troubles begin.

by: Ed from: USA
March 02, 2014 2:27 PM

Unfortunately for the health of any viable democracy, the burdens of democracy must be borne by the sons and daughters of the nation, if anyone is excluded from this obligation and privilege, then a schism develops and the exempt becomes viewed as second-class citizens. From Biblical accounts and readings- there is nothing which excludes someone from bearing arms to defend the nation/faith. Any religion that does not claim the right of self-defense is liable to destruction, as witnessed from past history.

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