Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews – Haredim – crowded into the centre of Jerusalem on Sunday to protest against being made to fight in the army. As things stand, they are exempt from being drafted into the military so that they can carry out their orthodox lifestyle, but a proposed bill could be about to change that, and the Haredim are not happy.
They turned Jerusalem into a sea of black hats, white shirts and long beards. There were no fiery speeches and no chanting. Instead, the Haredim came in massive numbers to pray. The men carried out the Amidah, a standing prayer that’s recited silently. They were observing Mincha, the afternoon prayer service. Bodies of all sizes swayed back and forth while their lips moved without noise. Haredi leaders had called on all males over nine to attend this protest. Even women were asked to join, though they stood apart from the men in segregated groups, along the periphery of the crowd. Around 500,000 were expected to show up. Local media later reported that the real number was between 250,000 and 400,000. Either way, it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever stood in, but it was eerily quiet.
Until last year, the ultra-Orthodox had been exempt from serving in the Israeli military since the creation of the State in 1949. While the army has the authority to conscript any citizen or permanent resident once they hit 18, teenage Haredim are able to avoid conscription by studying religious texts in institutions called yeshivas. The Haredi feel that this study is a contribution to Judaism that is equal to – if not greater than – serving in the Israeli army. They see compulsory military service as a form or religious persecution, denying them the right to practice and pulling them towards a more secular lifestyle.
A lot of Israel’s Jewish population pretty much resent the ultra-Orthodox community. In their eyes, the Haredim are unwilling to contribute to society, place a financial burden upon the country as a whole, and exert cultural control over secular and liberal Jews through the rabbinical courts. Haredim make up 10 percent of the 8 million Jews living in Israel. They receive the most financial assistance from the state while being one of the lowest employed demographic groups in the country. They are also a rapidly growing segment of the population – it’s estimated that, in 25 years, a quarter of all Israel's Jews will be ultra-Orthodox.
Haim, a teenage Haredi boy, came up to me at the protest and asked if I wanted to put on tefilin – two small black boxes worn on the arms that contain scrolls with verses from the Torah. I politely declined and asked him how he felt about the protest today. Haim was born in Jerusalem and would be compelled to serve in the military if and when the law takes effect. He feels that the State is trying to lure religious youth away from their pious lifestyle but today’s rally had got him hopeful for the future. “The whole community is putting their differences aside and coming together for the good of us all,” he said. He thinks the law will pass but says, “This protest is about showing the world that we oppose it. We oppose the State trying to get rid of prayer.”
In 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court declared the exemption illegal on the grounds of inequality. The government proposed a bill last month that would call for strict numbers of yeshiva students to be drafted into the military while still allowing a certain amount of exemptions. Those that refused to serve in the military could face jail time. Even though the bill is expected to be passed into law later this month, it wouldn’t take effect for three years, which is a long time in Israeli politics. The Haredi community plans to keep the pressure up, through demos and prayers, hoping that they can get stop the law coming into force.
The demo was an impressive display of the sheer numbers that the ultra-Orthodox can muster when they need to. The major roads leading into the city were blocked off. The main bus station and the light-rail system were shut down. Thousands of police were stationed in the area to prevent any of the violence that has recently erupted at ultra-Orthodox protests. But on Sunday, the cops were conspicuously absent from the throng, choosing to hang back.
Flyers with protest slogans littered the streets and young boys held up signs that declared in English and Hebrew, “The Israeli Government harshly persecutes and tramples observant Jews!” and, “You created the problem by establishing the State of Israel. Don’t ask us to fix it by joining the IDF!” This second statement is evidence of a strong anti-Zionist sentiment held by some sections of the Haredi population, most notably Hasidic Jews.
Hasidic Jews believe in a form of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that originated in 18th century Europe. They are easy to spot by their traditional dress and payot – long, curly side-locks. Early Zionism was actually opposed by Hasidic Jews, because of what they see as Zionism's tendency to champion secularism, and the belief that Jews made a promise with God not to establish a state in Israel using force. So obviously they’re not all that happy with how things have gone since Israel’s formation.
One of the largest anti-Zionist sects, the Satmar, has large communities in Williamsburg and Brooklyn in New York and Stamford Hill in London. The Satmar are so thoroughly opposed to the Israeli state that it accepts no monetary aid from the government. One of its religious leaders recently declared a “Jihad against the Israeli government”.
I had met Yakov, a 20-year-old Hasidic Satmar from the UK, before the protest began and he told me that, “it’s better to convert to Islam than join the army”. He explained, “At least then you’re still monotheistic. In the army, you’re worshipping the state.” Yakov is against any interference in what he calls a "pure" way of life. For him, being Hasidic means living a life full of prayer. He says that he has a closer connection to God by abiding to strict rules and daily rituals that fill his life with deep satisfaction and meaning.
He sees no hypocrisy in being anti-Zionist and living in Israel. “I don’t have any other choice, I want to live in an environment where I can be immersed in a religious lifestyle. Living in Mea Shearim [a Hasidic enclave in Jerusalem] keeps me pure. I can go outside and not see anything secular.” While being a relatively idyllic place for a Hasidic Jew to live, tensions against the State in Mea Shearim frequently boil over into full-scale riots. This past July, a Haredi soldier who was visiting his family in the neighbourhood had to be rescued from an angry mob by police.
Because Yakov is not an Israeli citizen, he wouldn’t need to serve in the military. However, he is a strong opponent to the idea and doesn’t think the government can back up their threat to imprison those who choose not to serve. “They can't arrest every yeshiva student,” he says. “They’re going to have to build detention camps for them and what's that going to look like? Putting Jews in camps?"
He had a fair point.
“Even if they started doing that, we'd start yeshivas in the jails. Wherever they put us, we'll study; there’s no difference.”
After the prayer service had concluded, religious music blared from towering racks of speakers that had been set up around the area. The mood was festive and young Haredi men began to dance, arm-in-arm, in large circles. As the sun set, tens of thousands of Haredim crowded the streets. Encouraged by their sheer weight of number, they seemed confident that God would answer their prayers. Whether it's through political manoeuvring or divine intervention, Yakov had told me earlier, “One thing is for sure: We won't be serving in the Israeli army.”