JERUSALEM -- Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews blocked the main entrance to Jerusalem on Sunday in a mammoth prayer vigil to protest plans to conscript thousands of their young men for military service.
Chanting prayers and verses from the Psalms, a sea of swaying men in black hats and suits thundered "God is the Lord!" as banners proclaimed "The Torah is our life."
The gathering was called after a parliamentary committee approved a draft bill that would set gradual quotas for conscripting up to 5,200 ultra-Orthodox young men annually for military or other national service, in accordance with Israel’s compulsory conscription law. Ultra-Orthodox who refuse to report for service would become liable to be charged criminally for draft dodging.
All Israelis are required to serve in the army when they reach 18, but under a decades-long arrangement reached in the early years of statehood, ultra-Orthodox religious students were exempted from service. The exemption became a major source of resentment, however, as the number of exemptions ballooned to tens of thousands, with many of the religious students living on government subsidies.
The call to draft the ultra-Orthodox and integrate them into the Israeli workforce – "sharing the burden" – was the battle cry of Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the governing coalition, led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who has spearheaded the proposed legislation.
"There’s a link between rights and duties, and there can’t be a community that is exempt from duties," Lapid told Channel Ten television after the protest. "This is not an attack on the world of the Torah. When you live in a state you owe it certain duties. This is a social revolution."
For the protesters, the proposed conscription steps are nothing less than an assault on a way of life that venerates full-time religious study as a supreme value.
"Even secular Israelis understand that it’s important to have people studying Torah, which preserves the Jewish people and helps everyone," said Tzion Fahima, 38, who traveled to the protest with his 15-year-old son from the southern town of Ofakim.
Fahima, a father of six who said he studies full time in a yeshiva and is supported by relatives and government stipends, said that despite being labeled parasites by secular critics, the ultra-Orthodox community was appreciated by many Israelis as "an important part of the Jewish people."
Shlomo Weissler, 23, an unmarried yeshiva student, said that the massive turnout of protestors was on the instructions of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, reflecting growing alarm at the attempt to criminalize avoidance of military service on religious grounds.
"What is disturbing is the word ‘criminal,’ Weissler said. “They’ve turned us into outlaws. A person sitting and studying Torah is not a criminal. We will never agree to the criminalization of Torah study."
Leaflets scattered among the crowd hammered home the message. "Whoever shuts his Talmud volume is a deserter and gives aid to the enemy," said one handbill. Another said: "Without the Torah there is no Jewish future." A hand-lettered sign warned: "Reporting for induction is entering the jaws of the lion."
Though several hundred young ultra-Orthodox men have joined the Israeli military under a special conscription program, the vast majority receive study exemptions, drawing criticism from secular Israelis who accuse them of shirking their civic duty.
Kimmy Caplan, an expert at Bar-Ilan University on the ultra-Orthodox, which make up about 10 percent of Israel’s population of 8 million, said that the community was growing more apprehensive about the draft issue, partly because Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled previous exemption arrangements to be unconstitutional.
"In the last few years, the Supreme Court has made itself clear that what is going on is unacceptable, and it has demanded that the government come up with a solution for army service by the ultra-Orthodox," he said. "The sense that the court is in the background has added to the tension."
At the prayer vigil, a group of secular soldiers heading home on leave walked through the black-clad throng, without incident. Ram’s horns, or shofars, were blown, and a prayer-leader wailed: "Our Lord in heaven, hear our voices!" his cries echoing down a deserted boulevard, closed to traffic by police.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.