Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis rallied on Thursday evening outside of the main army recruitment office in Jerusalem to protest government initiatives to draft yeshiva students into the army.
Though the leaderships of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties did not formally endorse the gathering, it drew an estimated 30,000-40,000 people, organizers said.
As the protests gathered fervor, some demonstrators turned over garbage cans and threw stones and other objects at police and security forces, who formed a human barrier to protect the building. One policeman was moderately injured, and eight others lightly hurt. They received treatment at local area hospitals.
Three demonstrators were also lightly injured as security forces used crowd dispersal methods, including smoke grenades, to counter the violence. Those three were treated at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
Several additional police officers and protesters were treated on the spot for very minor injuries.
Jerusalem’s police chief Yossi Pariente condemned what he called “a mass public disturbance.”
An ultra-Orthodox soldier and a journalist for Channel 2 were reportedly attacked in the melee.
Eight Haredi protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace.
A much smaller counter-demonstration gathered nearby in support of the universal draft.
Early in the demonstration, protesters read aloud passages from the biblical book of Psalms, and a prayer service was scheduled for later in the evening to “annul the evil decree” of military service.
The universal draft has long been a divisive issue in Israeli society, but ferment hit boiling point in February 2012 when the High Court of Justice ruled as unconstitutional a longstanding law granting sweeping exemptions to yeshiva students.
Since that ruling, several attempts have been made to formulate new legislation for the drafting of ultra-Orthodox into military and civil service, but without success. The dispute was a major issue in January’s elections, with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home making the imperative for a universal draft a key platform of their successful campaigns, and a requirement for their joining the coalition, excluding Shas and United Torah Judaism from the government.
Most recently, in April, a ministerial committee helmed by Science and Technology Minister Minister Yaakov Peri began working toward a solution, and announced that within two months it would “present the Knesset with a bill for [all citizens to] equally share the burden” of national service. In the last few days, though, as the state budget has been finalized, doubts have been raised as to whether the defense establishment will have the funding for a major upsurge in recruitment from the ultra-Orthodox community.
On Thursday, leaflets were handed out in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods urging the masses to demonstrate. Distributed by members of the extremist Eda Haredit faction, the flyers said that the purpose of the rally was to protest the government’s alleged determination “to destroy and eliminate religion and the Torah of Israel by any means possible.”
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, called on the public to “rise up… against the destructive edicts with which the sinners seek to uproot the Torah.” The rabbi added that “we will not rest… until all of these harsh decrees are annulled.”
The flyers blasted those whom the ultra-Orthodox have recently begun to refer to as “Hardakim,” both an acronym for “Haredim kalei da’at,” (“frivolous ultra-Orthodox”) and a play on the Hebrew word for insects, harakim. The term refers to those ultra-Orthodox men who have chosen to enlist in the IDF. According to the flyers, such individuals have “replaced their identity with the army and national service.”
Pini Rosenberg, one of the organizers of the demonstration, vowed to avoid the draft, “even if it means going to jail en masse.”
Rabbis Aharon Leib Shteinman and Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentors of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, respectively, have been extremely vocal opponents of any universal draft legislation, but both declined to participate in the Thursday night rally.
Later Thursday evening, Peri reacted to the massive rally, saying that the emerging universal draft law is “committed to the Israeli reality, to the principle of equality, and to mutual responsibility while maintaining the value of Torah study.”
The ultra-Orthodox community must “enter the framework of serving the state, in either military or civil service. From there they can enter the work force,” Peri added.
In January, two weeks before the Israeli elections, Yosef threatened that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students may have to emigrate from Israel in order to avoid military service.
According to the ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Haredim, one reason for the refusal of many in the ultra-Orthodox community to join the rally was the fear that a show of extremism would likely strengthen Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party has been at the forefront of the battle for a universal draft.
One activist was quoted by the site as saying that “public outrage is currently directed against the finance minister who imposed harsh economic policies. Such a rally may bring the Haredim back to the headlines; there’s no good reason to do so.”