Among the hundreds and thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis who took to Jerusalem’s street Sunday to protest a planned military draft law were the country’s two chief rabbis, who were photographed taking part in the rally.
The demonstration, which drew some 300,000 people according to police — organizers put the figure several hundred thousands higher — was billed as a mass prayer session to protest a Knesset bill that would impose criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef joined the protest prayer, reciting several passages of Psalms with Lau’s father Meir, who serves as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and is a former chief rabbi of Israel. Once aware of the photojournalists gathering around them, however, they returned to their offices, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported.
As employees of the state chosen by a Knesset-appointed panel, the chief rabbis are prohibited by law to participate in political protests.
The mandatory draft legislation is seen as a linchpin of the often complicated relationship between the state, the secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox, a relationship the chief rabbis are also forced to navigate.
The new rules been vociferously protested by the Haredi community, which for years enjoyed draft deferrals for Torah study, before the legislation allowing the deferrals was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012.
Uri Regev, president and CEO of the religious equality advocacy organization Hiddush, criticized Lau and Yosef.
“They have proved once again that they are not really chief rabbis, rather the messenger boys of the ultra-Orthodox sages. If the chief rabbis were even slightly connected to the general public, they would join the demonstrations in favor of sharing the burden of military service and end the discrimination of one’s blood over another’s,” he said in a press release.
Responding to questions as to the reason behind their appearance, a spokesman of the Rabbinate defended the actions of Lau and Yosef.
“The chief rabbis went to read several chapters of Psalms for the peace, unity, and safety of the Jewish people…there was no connection with the event,” he said.
The bill seeks to extend mandatory military or civil service to the ultra-Orthodox, would go into effect on July 1, 2017, should it pass a second and third reading in the parliament.
It will allow ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students the right to defer service until the age of 26, with incentives to enlist earlier. It will allow for a large fraction, more than half during the first year, to be exempt altogether, recognizing them as uniquely important students of Torah. But it will make draft evasion among the ultra-Orthodox a criminal offense.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.