Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested in Jerusalem on Tuesday in a show of force over the arrest of members of the community for failing to show up to their IDF drafts.
Community leaders called for the mass gathering, setting up a stage for rabbis to speak and closing a main street in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood, near to Jerusalem’s central bus station.
Police said that although the protest was unauthorized and illegal, they decided to contain the event and monitor it rather than risk violence by trying to break it up.
The event was a change in tone following weeks of often violent, but much smaller protests by young men, which included blocking traffic, burning trash and throwing rocks and objects at police. This protest was much larger and largely peaceful.
The event was organized by the supporters of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, who have been protesting the draft for the past few weeks. Unusually the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem — an anti-Zionist extreme faction opposed to any cooperation with the state — joined the protest. Rabbis from both groups spoke from the podium, preaching against the IDF.
The ultra-Orthodox protesters, dressed in their traditional black garb, held signs such as “The state of Israel persecutes Jews” and “The draft edicts — A Holocaust for the Torah world.”
“It’s better to be shot than to go into the army,” said 45-year-old protester Aaron Roth, who sports a long, dark beard.
The army said in a statement that “we condemn any form of draft-refusal,” Channel 2 reported.
On Monday, a yeshiva student arrested for failing to show up at an IDF induction center was released from a military jail after just nine days of detainment.
The detention of the teenager, the son of an associate of Auerbach, sparked protests by followers of the prominent rabbi nationwide over the past week.
He was arrested along with some 100 ultra-Orthodox supporters of Auerbach, who had been attempting to disrupt the Jerusalem Marathon earlier this month.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent about 10 percent of the Israeli population and live in compliance with a strict interpretation of Jewish laws.
Some of them view military service as a source of temptation for young people who then leave the closed world of prayer and religious study.
The ultra-Orthodox are exempt if studying in yeshiva religious schools. However, the issue is controversial with secular Israelis, and attempts have been made to remove the exemption.
Regardless, they must register at the recruitment office but some, inspired by rabbis hostile to any cooperation with the Israeli authorities, refuse to even go to the office and are considered deserters.