Hundreds of thousands of people from the haredi community gathered in Jerusalem late Sunday afternoon in one of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, to protest against a reform of the conscription law that would draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army or compulsory national service.
The huge crowd of people congregated from under the Bridge of Strings at the city entrance, stretching past the Jerusalem International Convention Center and down Shazar Avenue, branching off along large sections of Jaffa Road, Yermiyahu Street, Sarei Yisrael Avenue, and other major thoroughfares.
Although the police did not issue a crowd estimate, unofficial counts put the number as at least 300,000 participants.
Haredi organizers claimed much larger numbers, and a special prayer for a gathering of 600,000 Jews was recited out loud.
Roads in the capital surrounding the protest area were blocked off from early afternoon and Route 1, the main highway between the capital and the coast, was closed to private vehicles from 2 to 7 p.m.
Some 70 people were treated for minor injuries and ailments by emergency services during the rally.
The protest passed almost entirely peacefully, although some tires were set on fire in haredi neighborhoods close to the rally. In addition, one man protesting against the rally and calling on haredim to enlist was attacked with pepper spray.
Many demonstrators held aloft signs, some produced by the rally organizers, protesting the government conscription bill. One read, “We shall not surrender and we shall not bow down.” Another declared that conscription targets for the hared community are a “declaration of destruction,” with another saying that the army and national service programs designed for haredim would cause “assimilation and destruction.”
One sign said simply “Prepare for civil rebellion.”
The demonstration, officially titled the “Torah will be Victorious” rally, was called by the three rabbinic councils of the mainstream haredi political movements in Israel last week. The rabbinic leadership focused specifically on the provision of the conscription bill that would impose two years’ imprisonment for anyone refusing to serve, claiming that such a step would amount to “criminalizing” Torah study.
Numerous psalms and prayers for divine help blared over loudspeaker systems and were repeated by those gathered at the rally. The rally prayer service concluded with the “acceptance of the yoke of heaven,” the recitation of three verses usually said at the end of the Yom Kippur service, which were cried out aloud with a special intensity and fervor.
Following the prayers, a declaration on behalf of the leading haredi rabbis was read out at high volume.
“The gathering demands from the authorities that it not pass any law that injures Torah students in any way and coerces them to leave their studies, and even [threatens] to throw them in prison, which would constitute the uprooting of the Torah and a desecration of God’s name.”
The declaration continued, saying that “no yeshiva student should join the army in any way whatsoever, and they should not surrender to enticements or punishments, and should not cooperate in any way with army programs.”
As the rally was called to a close, music was blasted over the sound system and many of the participants danced together until dispersing.
Finance Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said that the mass gathering of so many thousands of haredim proved the necessity of the law.
“This picture proves why equality in the burden of military service is so important, because anyone looking at this mass of people understands that the State of Israel can’t carry these people on its back without them taking part in military and civilian service and taking part in the labor force and the Israeli economy,” Lapid said in an interview with Channel 10.
“A state with self-respect understands that there is a connection between rights and obligations.
There can’t be one sector that is freed from the obligations. I have nothing against them, but I want them to fulfill the same obligations as my son has. They need to have a part in being Israeli, and this is not an outrageous demand. They need to know that this is not an attack on the Torah world or Torah study.”