Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrated in the city of Bnei Brak on Monday over the recent arrest of a yeshiva student who failed to show up at a military draft office.
Protesters calling “We’d rather die than be recruited” and waving signs decrying a “religion-persecuting nation” attempted to block central streets in the city, causing heavy traffic congestion on Ze’ev Jabotinsky Road, which runs through Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and Petah Tikva.
Police were deployed at the scene in large numbers to handle the demonstration. Clashes were reported between officers and protesters and at least 20 people were arrested.
Officials said they were attempting to prevent protesters from blocking the major Route 4 highway located nearby, as has occurred during previous demonstrations.
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Demonstrators were members of the Jerusalem Faction, a radical ultra-Orthodox group formerly headed by the late Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.
Police said they “will not prevent the protest from taking place, out of a true desire to allow freedom of expression and protest of every citizen… even so, we will not allow a disturbance of the peace and will act with determination against any incidence of violence.”
A similar protest was held in Jerusalem on Thursday, when 46 people were arrested and a police officer was injured as hundreds blocked an intersection close to the entrance to the capital.
While the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel – revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population — the current protests are over the Jerusalem Faction’s refusal to have any connection at all with the military.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are routinely exempted from enlistment, but they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service. The Jerusalem Faction’s rabbinic leaders forbid students to even report to the office.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis have for decades enjoyed a blanket exemption from army service. Recent attempts to cater to ultra-Orthodox recruits have been met with some success, rising from some 300 ultra-Orthodox enlistees each year a decade ago to some 3,000 last year. But many ultra-Orthodox soldiers still face harassment, threats, and assault when they go home on leave to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.