As the time drew near for Thursday’s massive haredi protest in the capital – the largest of its kind in more than a decade – it seemed as if all other daily matters in Jerusalem simply ground to a halt, and the city’s eyes were cast in the direction of a pedestrian overpass above the usually-bustling Rehov Yermiyahu.
Throngs of men clad in long black coats, young and old alike, were suddenly seen walking toward the area that had been demarcated for the demonstration. They moved in a trickle at first – a handful here and there – and then dozens, hundreds, before they bled into a sea of 100,000 black hats, all bobbing and shuffling and shimmering under the hot afternoon sun.
The enormous crowd stretched from the intersection of Yermiyahu and Shamgar streets more than a mile back – where Yermiyahu becomes Bar-Ilan – lending the street a speckled appearance, mainly black and spots of white the whole way down.
As the masses assembled, loud Klezmer music blared from an intricate system of speakers, and they waited in the heat for the arrival of the guests of honor – the parents from Emmanuel who were on their way to jail.
“I came to see them,” said one young yeshiva student who asked not to be named. “I wanted to see for myself the people who were willing to sanctify God’s name and go into prison rather than dishonor the Torah.”
Many voiced similar opinions, while others added that the issue was no longer about Emmanuel, but what they called the High Court’s “interference” in their way of life.
“This isn’t about Emmanuel anymore,” said a kollel student named Nuria, who added that he himself was of Sephardi ancestry and did not believe the claims of Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardim surrounding the case.
“This is about the High Court crossing a red line, and basically giving us an ultimatum – choose our way or the Torah way – which is a ridiculous choice to give,” he said. “We’ll never choose anything but the Torah way.”
Nuria added that other recent flare-ups between the state and the haredi public had inflamed the situation.
“It’s also the issue with the excavation of Jewish tombs, and our Shabbat protests – all of it,” he said. “Even though they’re not directly related, frustration on the haredi street is building.”
As he spoke, leading haredi rabbis from a spectrum of streams – Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike – ascended to the stage and addressed the crowd, speaking out furiously against the High Court and strongly dismissing the accusations of “racism” that have been leveled against the community.
Psalms were read, prayers wailed through the speakers, and in an apparent nod to their Sephardi counterparts, “Selihot
,” the customary supplication read ahead of Yom Kippur, was recited in the Sephardi fashion.
But the crowd’s enthusiasm clearly peaked when the buses filled with the parents from Emmanuel finally pulled up to the demonstration.
Nachum Weissfish, the father of one of those parents, approached reporters clad in his Shabbat finest – an embroidered bekishe
coat and fur shtreimel
“I’m wearing my Shabbat clothes today because for me, it is a day of great simha
[happiness],” he said. “That I was able to merit such a son, one who is willing to sanctify God's name in this way, and go to jail, gives me nothing but reason to celebrate.”
Weissfish added that he had also arrived at the demonstration to voice his opposition to the High Court’s “continuous discrimination” against haredim.
“Any and every case that goes to the High Court involving haredim has a predetermined outcome,” he said. “It’s always against us.”
As the first leg of the demonstration drew to a close, the masses mobilized, making their way down Rehov Bar-Ilan toward the Russian Compound, where the parents were to begin their jail sentences.
Men and young boys, some of whom were singing and dancing as they moved along, packed the roads the entire way. Women had been told over the speakers not to join the march.
Some held signs reading, “We’ve chosen the Torah way,” and, “Between the Torah and the High Court, the Torah decides.”
Once they arrived at the Russian Compound, again the crowd amassed,
blending into one large bloc of people standing shoulder to shoulder as
the fathers of the Emmanuel children arrived. As was the case
throughout the day, despite the crowding and the heat, there was no
One by one, the Emmanuel fathers were paraded toward the police
headquarters to be registered. They were lifted up on people’s
shoulders amid dancing and jumping and clapping.
Outside the police buildings, however, there were tearful scenes as
young children of some of those who were going to jail braced for the
separation. One father sat quietly with his daughter, softly reassuring
her amid the surrounding mayhem.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” one haredi man asked of the
day’s mass show of solidarity. “This is an important moment, it’s an
important showing of strength.”
“We’re proud of them, and the parents are proud to be able to do this,”
said Ya’acov Biderman, a brother-in-law of one of the fathers who was
heading to jail.
“The press has tried to make this about an Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide,”
he added. “But there was never a bigger lie. This is about the High
Court giving us a choice between their way or the Torah way, and
frankly, it’s insulting that they even gave us this choice.”
He added, “It’s not even a question. We will always choose the way of the Torah, over any and everything else.”