A massive ultra-Orthodox demonstration in Jerusalem today underscored deep opposition to the Israel’s efforts to integrate its fastest-growing community, which has for decades prized religious study over joining the military or the workforce.
“Our service is in Torah – that’s our way,” says Moshe, a 16-year-old yeshiva student with dark side curls, as loudspeakers project deafening prayers by various rabbis. He is one of hundreds of thousands of religious Jews who converged on Jerusalem this afternoon for the event, blocking the city’s main entrance and causing authorities to shut down the main highway to Tel Aviv, the central bus station, and the light rail line.
Haredi (ultra-orthodox) have been exempted from military service since Israel was founded, but as the once-miniscule community approaches 20 percent of the country’s population, the issue of “sharing the burden” of a secure and prosperous state has become one of the most pressing on the Israeli agenda. In the latest effort at social equality, the Israeli parliament this week pushed forward legislation that would criminalize draft dodging by haredim.
Some say the law is impractical and is ruining more than a decade of groundwork that has increased the number of haredim in the army and workplace. One major sect even threatened a mass exodus to the United States if the bill is passed.
“The whole community is closing in on itself,” says Tzippy Yarom, a journalist with the prominent haredi magazine Mishpacha. “Just like a porcupine, when it is threatened, it curls itself into a ball and then you cannot touch it.”