The yeshiva doors were thrown open in the middle of the day. A boys’ choir belted out the Psalms-themed standards. And before the solemn afternoon service began, clusters of friends ambled up the avenue to the International Convention Center to join the hundreds of thousands already in place. There they protested the new piece of legislation that for the last two years has been snaking its way through Knesset and will, once it is finally passed – and provided it clears the hurdle of the High Court of Justice – play a central role in governing the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox, the national religious and the secular majority in Israel.
The bill, which seeks a more equitable sharing of the burden of military service in Israel, where there is a compulsory draft of 36 months for boys and 24 months for girls, will go into effect on July 1, 2017, by which time there will likely be a new government in Jerusalem. It will, if it is not eroded by attrition from all sides, 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.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid called the pending legislation “the correction of a historic wrong.”
Everyone I spoke to at the protest prayer on Sunday afternoon – and I tried to speak with those who appeared on the more moderate side of the ultra-Orthodox camp, the sort of young men who might consider military or national service – was convinced it would only increase the animosity and unite all behind a staunchly rejectionist leadership.
“They used to say, ‘Whoever is not studying should go to the army,'” said Shai Dvir, a 17-year-old student from the Torat Chaim Yeshiva in Modi’in Illit. “Today they say, ‘Don’t anybody dare.'”
Dvir, in gray slacks, stood with a group of friends. Most wore fashionable glasses, velvet yarmulkes and short sidelocks. Some smoked cigarettes, some worked on a pocketful of sunflower seeds. They interviewed me at length about the perception of the ultra-Orthodox in the secular world. Dvir even said he was “curious about the army.” But all agreed that the government’s show of force in criminalizing draft-dodging made the notion unthinkable.
Benzion Hefetz, the most vociferous of the bunch, said he felt the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society was more entrenched and less solvable even than the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The gap is even greater,” he said.
His friends disagreed. “I don’t believe that the majority of the people support this law,” said Yakov Shapiro, somewhat optimistically.
The service, billed by one of the rabbis speaking over the loudspeaker as one “you will remember until the coming of the Messiah,” moved through the Amida prayer and into the Psalms and penitential prayers. With each progression the voices grew ever more wracked by lament. The mood though, while fervent, never seemed truly urgent or desperate.
A man with a trimmed beard, sneaking sips of RC Cola and occasional drags from a cigarette, described himself as “in the process of strengthening” – a Hebrew phrase that means growing more religious. He said the new law “doesn’t seek to solve problems but to complicate them.” A short three-year break in Torah study, he said, was unthinkable because “one plus one doesn’t equal two in this case. Torah study needs to be continuous or it starts to splinter apart.”
A printed piece of Torah commentary, handed out in the section of the crowd I was in, likened the ultra-Orthodox to King David, whose study of Torah, it said, enabled his chief of staff, Yoav the son of Tzruya, to succeed on the battlefield. Leaving the halls of study, it argued, would be akin to going AWOL.
Only near the corner of Agripas Street and Ben Zvi Boulevard did I bump into a group of counter-protesters. Three roommates, all originally from the US, brandished an Israeli flag amid the crowd until they were asked by police to keep their distance. “Waving an Israeli flag in Jerusalem shouldn’t be a provocation,” said Aaron Broyde, who is originally from Atlanta, Georgia, and served in the Kfir Brigade in the IDF. “I thought there’d be at least a couple of hundred people here.”
His friend Jonathan Vasquez, from Portland, Oregon, also a Kfir veteran, said he thought the proposed legislation was “watered down” and a far cry from true equality.
“I expected slightly more,” he said.
Walking down the street, toward the Supreme Court building where the proposed legislation will surely be tested, I fell into step alongside a man named Avraham. A resident of Beitar Illit, a Breslov Hassid who has boys approaching draft age, he said that the proposed legislation was “a knife in the back.” There was a time when he would have counseled his son to join the army if he was not making the most of his time in yeshiva; today, he said, “No way. The forcefulness pushes people to resist.”