The arrest of an ultra-Orthodox man who refused to enlist in the IDF sparked widespread protests throughout the country Thursday, as thousands of Haredi demonstrators demanded the young man’s immediate release from army prison and called on the government to reinstate payments to religious seminaries which were frozen earlier this week by Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
In Jerusalem, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clashed with police forces on the light-rail suspension bridge near the entrance to the city. According to police, several protesters attempted to break through the police security buffer and throw bottles and firecrackers at security personnel and passersby. Fifteen demonstrators were arrested, police said. A number of main roads in the capital were blocked as a result of the protests, causing heavy traffic throughout the city.
“The Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] will never enlist!” an enraged protester filmed by Channel Two News was heard saying.
“We’ve managed to overcome the inquisitions, we overcame Hitler, and we will now overcome the state,” he cried.
In the background, several demonstrates could be heard calling the policemen at the site Nazis.
The demonstrations were largely organized by a radical Lithuanian Haredi group known as “the Jerusalem branch,” Ynet reported.
About one hundred protesters clashed with police at the northern entrance to Ashdod, with twelve people arrested after allegedly attempting to assault a policeman. A police car was reported to have been set on fire by protesters as well.
Two demonstrators were treated on the spot for mild injuries.
Hundred of ultra-Orthodox protesters who attempted to block the main highway near Modiin were removed from the area by police. The protesters began praying along the highway shoulders, Walla reported.
Near Bnei Brak, demonstrators blocked the Geha highway and caused massive traffic jams, Israel Radio reported. Demonstrators also threw a police motorcycle, driverless, onto the street.
Police also reported gatherings of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators near Beit Shemesh.
Overall, nearly thirty demonstrators were arrested in different locations throughout the country and three policeman suffered light injuries, Ynet reported.
Rabbi David Zicherman, one of the organizers of the Jerusalem protests, called on the ultra-Orthodox public to start a civil disobedience movement and stop paying taxes.
“You are pushing us into a corner,” he said of the government. “We will start a war with the State of Israel, and it will burn like wildfire. We, Holocaust survivors, are now encountering a spiritual Holocaust.”
“They will fail in their attempt to lead us to annihilation,” he warned. “We shall not compromise nor negotiate.”
Earlier this week, Lapid brought to a halt to state payments to religious seminaries that are attended by ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers hours before the cash was due to be paid out.
Lapid ordered the funding to be frozen right after a High Court ruling which determined that the state should stop making payments to seminaries as part of an ongoing effort to draft ultra-Orthodox men into national service.
MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), who chairs a committee charged with hammering out a bill for the conscription into national service of the ultra-Orthodox community, denied that an agreement had been reached by committee members on a formula for enforcing the eventual law by imposing criminal penalties on those who try to evade their service.
In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Kol Hai radio Thursday, Shaked said the committee was still working on a text for the controversial bill that will be acceptable to all parties.
Earlier in the day media reports claimed that four senior members of the committee, representing the Jewish Home, Hatnua, and Labor parties, had secretly reached an agreement on the nature of criminal charges that would be brought against ultra-Orthodox men who try to dodge the draft.
On Thursday, Yedioth Ahronoth published details from a proposed version of the bill that is to be voted on by the committee next week. The newspaper said that the bill will lay out quotas for the coming few years, based on an increasing percentage of the total number of ultra-Orthodox eligible for national service.
Israeli men and women are usually drafted into the army at the age of 18. However, ultra-Orthodox Israeli men were mostly exempt from army or national service until July 2012, when the Tal Law, under which the exemptions were granted, was declared unconstitutional. The dissolution of the law has forced parliamentarians to draw up new legislation that would conscript ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab men into the military.
According to the report in Yedioth Ahronoth, in 2014 the planned quota is 3,800 men, or about 47.5% of all ultra-Orthodox men eligible for army service. Of that number, 2,300 are to inducted into the army and 1,500 will do civilian national service. In 2015 that number will rise to 4,500, or 56% of the available manpower, 2,700 of whom will go the army and 1,800 to national service. In 2016 the quotas will aim at 65% of the manpower with 3,200 joining the army and 2,000 doing national service.
Ultra-Orthodox men will also have the option to put off their service each year until the age of 24, on condition that the annual quotas are met by other recruits.
However, the thorny issue of how to enforce the quotas with criminal penalties remains undecided.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and other community leaders have been pushing back hard against enlistment in the army, which they fear will make it harder for their followers to keep a strict interpretation of Jewish law and will cause spiritually perilous mixing with the secular population.