Haredi leaders are divided over how to respond to the new military draft bill being advanced by coalition parties in the Knesset.

Political leaders from Shas — at 11 Knesset seats, the largest Haredi party — are asking the party’s spiritual leaders, the rabbis on its Council of Torah Sages, to reject calls from Haredi activists to organize a “million man march” against the version of the Equal Service Bill approved last week, which would enact criminal sanctions against Haredim if the bill’s new quotas for Haredi draft are not met by mid-2017.

Rabbinic councils from several Haredi denominations met Monday to discuss the Haredi response to the new bill, which has drawn harsh criticism from the sector’s rabbis and politicians.

In the deliberations, Shas leaders, including the party’s chairman MK Aryeh Deri, insist that mass demonstrations against the Equal Service Bill would play into the hands of its chief proponent, Finance Minister and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid.

Lapid “is looking for a victory,” Shas leaders told the Haredi website Kikar Hashabat as part of the party’s campaign to head off public demonstrations in the Haredi street. “We can’t give it to him. The new bill is a hollow shell. This sort of demonstration will only help the enemies of the Torah,” the sources told the website.

The latest version of the draft bill has faced scathing criticism from Haredi leaders over its inclusion of individual criminal sanctions against Haredi draft-dodgers that would kick in if the community as a whole failed to meet rising quotas for the draft. But it has also faced criticism from proponents of an equal draft for delaying such criminal sanctions until mid-2017, after the next election.

Shas MKs Eli Yishai (left) and Aryeh Deri speak during a Shas party meeting, February 18, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shas MKs Eli Yishai (left) and Aryeh Deri speak during a Shas party meeting, February 18, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shas leaders were careful to tell Kikar Hashabat that the final decision on a demonstration rests with the party’s rabbinic leadership, saying they would “express our opinion to the Council of Torah Sages, but what the giants of Israel decide, we will do; we are their emissaries.”

Shas, which represents the Sephardi Haredi community, has urged other Haredi parties and leaders, especially United Torah Judaism’s MK Moshe Gafni, to campaign in their communities as well. Gafni is considered close to Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak, among the top leaders of the Ashkenazi Haredi community in Israel.

Gafni has heard warnings from his Sephardi counterparts that a mass demonstration “would play into Lapid’s hands.”

Gafni, too, spoke with Kikar Hashabat, where much of the community debate seems to be taking place over the past week.

On Saturday night, he told the website that on the previous Thursday “we sat with Rabbi Shteinman about the ‘demonstration of the million.’ This is not a simple question, and I won’t be the one who makes the final decision. The decision will be in the hands of the giants of the Torah, but I’m giving the opinion of the [political leadership],” he said.

Gafni then revealed what he had advised the rabbinic leaders. “Yair Lapid won’t get anything from this law. He failed with the economy and he will fail with this as well,” he said. “I’m not afraid of him; the only thing that can increase his [Knesset] seats will be this demonstration. In the next election, he will show a million people [demonstrating against the bill] and say, ‘I was the only one who fought them.’ And even more so if one throws a stone,” Gafni said.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on February 6, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on February 6, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The growing consensus against a demonstration may have difficulty convincing the more conservative streams in Haredi political life, especially the Ashkenazi Haredim of Jerusalem, where more groups such as the Eda Haredit and others have openly expressed a willingness to fight violently against implementation of the bill.

Last week, while on a visit to Israel, the anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, delivered a scathing criticism of the draft bill, sharper in tone than any Israeli Haredi leader but, say observers, reflective of the more extreme segments of the Haredi community.

“The evil ones of Israel have gathered together to try to separate us from the Torah, to make [the Jewish people] forget Your Torah,” he said.

“We promise to You to remain loyal to You in every situation, including actual self-sacrifice. We will go to prison, receive murderous beatings with joy, and not detach from the Torah. We have passed much in the years of the Diaspora, from the Inquisition to Auschwitz, [but] our fathers and our fathers’ fathers taught us to sacrifice our very lives for You and the holy Torah.

“Whatever happens,” he vowed, “the evil ones of Israel will not succeed in separating us from You and the Torah.” Speaking of the army, where Haredi leaders fear young Haredim will find it difficult to maintain their religious observance, Teitelbaum said, “We won’t go to the place that separates the Jewish people from the Torah.”