NEW YORK – Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in New York’s financial district on Sunday to protest against a Knesset bill to draft previously exempt yeshiva students into the IDF or national service. The protest, described as a prayer meeting by organizer Agudath Israel of America, was intended to serve as a follow-up to last week’s mega-protest in Jerusalem, which drew a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
The prayers offered at the rally were intended as a plea for divine mercy in the face of Israel’s “ongoing attempt at social engineering of the haredi community,” Agudath Israel said in a statement.
The crowd, estimated by the NYPD at 30,000-35,000, stretched for blocks, closing off Water Street to traffic and turning lower Manhattan into a sea of black hats, white shirts, and long caftans.
Stating that his organization was only the organizer of the rally’s logistics, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran told The Jerusalem Post that there was “no official organization or individual” behind the event.
“It is simply a grass-roots response to the similar gathering in Israel this past Sunday that aimed to pray that the current legislation about conscription of haredim be removed from play,” he added.
An uncredited statement mailed to the Post in the name of the protest leaders stated that efforts to extend conscription to the ultra-Orthodox community are “designed to severely limit the growth of Torah in the Holy Land.”
“This is our message to our dear brethren in Eretz Yisroel: Know that the Torah community in America stands with you in this difficult moment of challenge,” the statement read.
Participants who spoke with the Post were uniformly adamant that they were not protesting so much as praying for divine intercession to prevent the equality in service bill from becoming law.
A common refrain among the attendees was that Torah study is what has provided Israel with its security and that drafting yeshiva students would be a blow to that study and, consequently, would endanger the lives of Israel’s citizens.
“The draft is not the issue,” one attendee asserted. “The whole story is a lie.”
According to the man, who preferred not to give his name, the entire issue of the draft was a plot to destroy traditional Judaism. Stating that Israel is currently also attacking the religious-Zionist Hesder yeshiva system, in which students both study Talmudic texts and serve in the IDF, he accused the state of attempting to harm all Torah students. Such students, he added, are the army of God.
Meyer Fogel, an ultra-Orthodox man from Brooklyn, said he believes that conscription would endanger the State of Israel, whose survival has been of a “miraculous” nature.
Our power is not just from the army, he told the Post. “We know better.”
Calling into question the concept of equality of the defense burden, the rallying cry of Israelis who support a universal draft, Fogel said that it is sad that secular Israelis see military service as a burden.
The secular “don’t want to serve,” he averred.
In December, several senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Israel canceled a planned a anti-draft tour of the US, due to fears that their cause would be misunderstood and would arouse anti-Semitism.
Prior to the cancellation of the trip, MK Yisrael Eichler told Israeli ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama that it was aimed at “enlisting the Jewish community of the United States to generate diplomatic pressure on this wicked government.”
However, after a meeting in Bnei Brak between several American ultra-Orthodox leaders and MKs, a decision was made to postpone the tour and a massive planned protest rally, due to concern that “the gathering would not be understood properly, and that it might stir up anti-Semitism.”
A major anti-draft rally planned for Manhattan last April was canceled following what Agudath Israel of America termed “security concerns” in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Satmar Hassidim subsequently held a 20,000-person rally in Manhattan in June against both the draft and the State of Israel.
Several major rabbis of the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community in Israel were reportedly against the Satmar rally.
Prior to the Satmar rally, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, one of the leading rabbis of the Lithuanian movement, reportedly stated that the “main thing is to increase Torah learning, the fear of Heaven, and prayer” in order to prevent conscription.