Thousands of haredi community members gathered in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood in the early hours of Monday morning to protest plans to draft the ultra-Orthodox into national service.
Police estimated that at least 5,000 men, women and children turned out at Kikar Shabbat, where leading rabbis of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit organization led impassioned prayers to “avert the decree of army enlistment.”
The highest authority of the Eda Haredit, Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, addressed the crowd, telling parents not to despair or be afraid of the forces of the state.
“This is our task, to teach our children the value of selfsacrifice for the sake of the Torah,” said Weiss. “We will not allow them to take yeshiva students to the army or the police. It is incumbent on us to give up our lives and not to stray from the path... The yeshivot are a tower of light for Judaism.”
Weiss added that proposed ideas such as integrating Torah study with military service are also unacceptable.
Rabbi Moshe Shternbach, head of the Eda Haredit Rabbinical Court, was similarly defiant. “We are the true soldiers of the Jewish people,” he said of the thousands of haredim studying in yeshivot.
“A soldier who abandons his post is considered a traitor, and so to with us it is forbidden to leave one’s post.”
“The Zionists expelled the Arabs from the Land of Israel, what right do they have to disturb those who study Torah?” continued Shternbach.
“The only merit we have to be in this place is the merit of Torah and mitzvot, yet this they want to take from us.”
The demonstration was called to protest new legislation currently being formulated in the Knesset to bring men from the haredi sector into military and national service programs.
The Keshev Committee tasked with drafting the proposals is expected to present its recommendations in the coming days.
In February, the High Court of Justice struck down the “Tal Law,” enacted in 2002, which had provided a legal framework for full-time yeshiva students to indefinitely defer military or national service.
There are currently 54,000 full-time yeshiva students who are exempted from army service within the framework of the Tal Law, which will expire on August 1.
Surprisingly, one of the most senior rabbis of the mainstream haredi community, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, was also present at the demonstration.
The leaders of the non-hassidic stream of the haredi community do not generally associate themselves with the activities of the more hardline Eda Haredit.
“We have to give up our lives against a decree which is part of our existence,” Auerbach declared. “It is not possible that they will enter the world of Torah with compromises of quotas [for the number of yeshiva students exempt from national service], or that they can tell us who is an exceptional student [who can get an exemption] and who has to enlist. We can’t give them a foot in the door.”
The Eda Haredit leaders, who were assembled on a platform overlooking the square, led traditional mourning prayers typically said on fast days and times of distress for the Jewish people, with the shofar blown intermittently during the various prayers and supplications.
Some of the rabbis and crowd members wore sackcloth draped over their clothes, and small sachets of ashes were distributed that demonstrators sprinkled on themselves as a sign of mourning and contrition.
The protest was called for 5 a.m. because that is when the gates of heaven open to receive prayer, said Pini Rosenberg, a spokesman for the demonstration on behalf of the Eda Haredit.
“We’re seeing the enlistment here of a large part of the haredi community and its leaders, and this huge gathering is saying today ‘no to decrees, no to compromises, we’re against all forms of the [military] draft,’” said Rosenberg.
He added that in recent days rabbinical leaders of the community have appealed for funds from abroad to subsidize the yeshivot, should the new legislation substantially reduce state support.
Asked what the community will do if a law demanding obligatory military or national service for all is passed, Rosenberg said that the government should prepare 50,000 prison spaces to absorb yeshiva students who will refuse to be drafted.
Also on Monday, a report on Ynet claimed that in a meeting with Keshev Committee chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) on Sunday, Interior Minister and Shas chairman Eli Yishai described the efforts to draft haredi yeshiva students as a transgression within Jewish law that one must die for, rather than violate.
According to the report, Yishai compared the draft to the three prohibitions that cannot be transgressed under any circumstances – murder, illicit sexual relations and idolatry.
However, a spokesman for the minister categorically denied that Yishai had compared drafting haredim into the army to these prohibitions.
He explained that what Yishai meant was that coercively drafting haredim into the army would lead the moderate factions of the community to declare that enlisting in the IDF would be prohibited under any circumstances.