The hundreds of thousands of haredi men and women who attended Sunday’s rally in Jerusalem were there to protest against legislation that would compel men from the community to perform national service.
In the public debate on the issue, it is most often the views of the haredi political or rabbinic leadership that is heard on the airwaves and in the press, and not that of the average haredi (ultra-Orthodox) citizen.
But on Sunday, many participants in the rally were ready and willing to give their opinion on the law currently being prepared by the Knesset to draft haredi men into military and civilian service.
Avi, a 21-year-old yeshiva student from Bnei Brak, said he would not consider enlisting in any manner whatsoever.
His main concern, he explained, was the problematic environment that faces a haredi man in the army.
“The goal of the government in getting haredim to go to the army is to get them to abandon their religion,” said Avi, citing in particular the close contact with women as one of the greatest concerns.
He added that he would not consider enlisting in the army programs designed to accommodate the lifestyle of haredi men either, since Torah study was of paramount importance.
“The entire world exists only because of the holy Torah and those who study it. Torah study is a much greater factor in our national defense than is the army.”
Eliezer, a 30-year-old hassid from Betar Illit, had a slightly different opinion, however.
He criticized the legislation being passed through the Knesset, saying that the terms of the bill calling for criminal sanctions against yeshiva students refusing to serve were a declaration of war.
“This is our response. If the government wants a war, then we will fight back, and this is why we’re here today,” said Eliezer.
He pointed out that over the past 10 years, increasing numbers of haredi men have joined some form of national service program and are increasingly going out to work.
Eliezer said that he was himself a manager of a hi-tech company in Jerusalem with some 30 employees from the haredi sector.
“This attempt by the government to force the haredi public into doing what they want is unacceptable,” he said, however. “Only through dialogue with our rabbis can any accommodation be reached.”
Yosef, a 23-year-old Sanz hassid, who also studies in yeshiva in Bnei Brak, gave the plainest response as to his opinion on the prayer rally and the issue of conscription.
“I don’t have to understand anything. I speak to my rabbis and ask them what I should do,” he said.
Yisrael Rozenstein, a 24-year-old Vizhnitz hassid and a yeshiva student in Bnei Brak, claimed that one of the main purposes of the army was to serve as a “melting pot” in which can be created “the average Israeli man.”
This, he said, was not acceptable to the haredi community, which wants to preserve its own identity and way of life and was one of the main reasons he objected to military service.
But Rozenstein also insisted that the “spiritual national- service” performed by haredi yeshiva students was as critical to the nation’s well-being as military service – if not more so.