Tens of thousands gathered on the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday for the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a radical ultra-Orthodox leader who led sometimes violent demonstrations against the military draft of the Haredi community.
Auerbach suffered a heart attack during Shabbat at his Jerusalem home overnight on Saturday, aged 86. First responders tried to resuscitate Auerbach and he was taken to the city’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The funeral procession for Auerbach began at the mostly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Shaarei Hesed in the center of Jerusalem, where his family members and prominent rabbis from the radical, anti-conscription “Jerusalem Faction” he led eulogized him.
One such rabbi, Tzvi Friedman, told participants that “we are in a war against religious persecution.” He called for community members to avoid showing up at the military recruiting office and “gladly” fill up prisons for doing so, the Hebrew-language news site Ynet reported.
Auerbach, who was one of the prominent Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, was the leader of the “Jerusalem Faction,” which has been at the forefront of protests against the conscription of members of the ultra-Orthodox community.
The demonstrations turned violent at times and featured young religious students blocking main streets in Jerusalem and other cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations.
The protests centered around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.
At the rabbi’s instruction, Auerbach’s followers refused to show up to the draft office to apply for a deferral or exemption from the army. Followers of other rabbis do apply for the exemptions and are therefore not arrested.
After the eulogies, Auerbach’s body was taken to the Har Hamenuhot cemetery to be buried, passing through major roads in the center of the city which were temporarily blocked.
Those routes included Hagra, Kakal, Diskin, Rupin, Ben-Tsvi and Weitzman streets, as well as the area between the Sakharov Gardens junction and Har Hamenuhot.
Heavy traffic was reported in most routes into the Israeli capital during the funeral, after police urged drivers to “refrain from nearing the area” and instead to use the Arazim tunnel on the Route 9 highway.
Last year, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. The decision raised the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with dramatic political and social implications. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law.
Auerbach’s death came as ultra-Orthodox parties work to advance fresh legislation exempting religious students from the draft, one of which is reportedly threatening to hold up the 2019 state budget until an exemption law is approved.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.