NEW YORK (JTA) — Until now, the primary storyline of the religious-secular battles in Israel has been driven by Women of the Wall, the activist group that, with their monthly prayer meetings at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, have brought more attention to the quest for religious equality in Israel than has been seen in years.
But with the massive haredi protest at the Wall last month, and Sunday’s large showing in Lower Manhattan, the Haredim have begun to mobilize.
The immediate issue which brought thousands to Foley Square Sunday is the attempt to conscript ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the army. A parliamentary committee advanced a bill last month that would do just that. But the banner under which the protestors gathered in Foley Square on Sunday surprised me a little, as it’s one that has been largely the domain of religious liberals: freedom of religion.
As one sign carrier told me, his religion requires him to sit and study Torah. Any attempt to draft those like him into the military would be a violation of his religious rights.
It has generally been the liberals who have taken this line (in several cases, to the Israeli Supreme Court), arguing that Orthodox law should not be the law of the land, and that Reform and Conservative Jews also have rights, in particular at the Western Wall. The effort has borne fruit, leading to a court ruling in favor of women’s prayer at the Wall and an announcement by the Religious Services Ministry that it would institute changes to allow for the funding of non-Orthodox rabbis. The support that such efforts have drawn from the ranks of American Jews shows that the quest for religious equality is a resonant one.
Which may be precisely why the haredim are trying to co-opt it. To passersby on Sunday, the crowd had a simple message, one that rings sympathetically to American ears. It’s a savvy move, and one with the added benefit of obscuring the anti-Zionism that is at the heart of the protest. Signs promoting the gathering spoke of the “evil” Israeli authorities, leading the Rabbinical Council of America, a centrist Orthodox group, to condemn the “anti-Israel rally” before it had even begun, saying attendees were aiding the enemies of the Jewish people. But it was the protestors who believed themselves to be on God’s side. One speaker portrayed the conscription effort as only the latest in a series of failed attempts throughout history to destroy Judaism.
Sunday’s gathering was promoted with banners in strongholds of the Satmar hasidic community. According to a Forward report last week, the protest was deemed so important it brought about a rare rapprochement between the group’s two warring factions, which split after the 2006 death of the Satmar rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum. Organizers said they expected 20,000 people. One guy with a placard told me there were 100,000 there, which was certainly not the case. But they came by the busload. Hours after the event began, groups of hasidic men in Brooklyn were still streaming toward Manhattan.