Beneath a gray, overcast sky, a surreal tableau of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in uptown Jerusalem Sunday afternoon to protest against the government’s conscription bill, as secular onlookers took in the spectacle with pronounced awe and contempt.
“As a human force, it’s amazing to behold,” said Aurora Carlson, her mouth slightly agape as she snapped photos of the event. “But I’m here as part of a protest against the protest. I think they all should serve in the army or do national service.”
Carlson said she viewed the protest as “shocking” and “desperate.”
“It’s shocking because a lot of the protest is illogical,” she said. “Why shouldn’t they contribute to the public good? Why should they be parasites? I view this as desperate, because they’re scared to take any responsibility for the land they live in.”
While conceding that the issue of compulsory haredi military service is “complicated” – and even deeming the demonstrators “courageous” for their refusal to conform – Don Graber noted that the protest underscores an egregious sense entitlement among the ultra-Orthodox community.
“This would be more honorable if they didn’t accept money from the state and benefit from it in so many ways,” he said. “But it’s not honorable, because they take hundreds of millions [of shekels] in welfare and give nothing in return.”
Meanwhile, three female high school students walking through the phalanx of haredi men, women and children said they were dismissed from school at noon due to the ensuing commotion the protest created throughout the city.
“This is way too much,” said Kayla Reboh,14, as she accompanied her twin sister, Sarah, and their friend, Abigail, on their way home. “I mean look at how many people are here! They’re overreacting because they can learn Torah and serve the country at the same time.”
Sarah echoed her sister’s sentiment, expressing incredulity that the protesters take money from the government, yet refuse to serve or work, while secular citizens are obligated to carry a disproportionate burden.
“Our father works all day and some of them don’t even go to yeshiva and study Torah,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Abigail said she viewed the protest as misplaced and unpatriotic.
“They act like we’re against them – that we want to kill them – but in fact we just want them to serve our country,” she said. “It’s not like we’re asking them to serve another country. They want to live here, but they’re not working for it; all they’re doing is having babies and studying Torah.”
Indeed, Elizabeth Levy, who was forced to send the students at her downtown study center home early, said praying instead of serving is an unacceptable substitute.
“My husband had a son who died in the army and these people are saying that what they are doing for the country is praying for it,” she said. “I’m not against their praying, but they should pray and serve.”
Anna Permikov, a waitress in upscale Mamilla, expressed a more visceral reaction while attempting to walk through the densely populated protest.
“I’m very, very upset that they’re living in this country and are not willing to do anything to support it,” she said. “They’re like parasites – they take but they don’t give.
They should be able to pray, but they should also serve in the army, pay taxes, and have all the obligations that normal citizens do!” Asked to respond to the many recriminations made against the protesters, Shira, a haredi woman in her 30s who requested her last name not be published, said the demonstration is “not about the army, it’s about the Torah.”
“The government can’t force people to stop studying the Torah and serve in the army,” she said.
Questioned why haredim cannot study and serve, Shira said such a compromise is unrealistic.
“We can’t do both because our life is the Torah,” she said. “We are the heart of Israel and we’re trying to save it from losing its identity. We understand that some people are secular and we don’t force them to be religious, so they can’t force us to stop learning Torah and become secular.”
Moreover, Shira said the government does not need the haredim in the IDF, yet is singling them out to make a political statement.
“They’re making a statement that everyone is equal – especially [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid, who doesn’t know anything about the Torah. He doesn’t know what we feel, what we think. That’s why we’re here, because we’re a lot of people, not just a small group, and we have something to say and something to save: our tradition.”
Pressed to answer what tangible contribution the haredim make to Israeli society, Shira said the answer cannot be quantified in shekels.
“Our contribution to the nation is not material or professional it’s spiritual and the core of our identity as a nation – the whole meaning of Am Yisrael.”
Iris Lichtzon, a haredi woman attending the protest with Shira, contended that the impasse between the ultra-Orthodox and secular communities is based on a lack of understanding.
“We understand that they don’t understand us,” she said. “They don’t understand that Torah studying has value that you can’t measure; it’s spiritual. The roots of Judaism are spiritual and if someone doesn’t have contact with spirituality then they can’t understand it.”
In response to the litany of secular protestations that the haredi community is draining the nation’s economy while not contributing in a meaningful way, Lichtzon argued that nothing could be further from the truth.
“We believe that we give a huge contribution to Israel by learning Torah and by building a society with stable values,” she said. “The non-religious way of thinking is to take care of yourself, and the religious way of thinking is to take care of all Am Yisrael by learning Torah and living it.”
Lichtzon continued, “If you learn about haredi society you see that we have so much we give back spiritually. This is our contribution.”