Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters brought vehicular and light-rail traffic at the northern entrance of Jerusalem to a standstill Sunday afternoon as they protested the arrest of a draft-dodging seminary student.
Police said at least 38 protesters were arrested as they choked the junctions of Jaffa Road and Sarei Israel Boulevard. The protesters sat in the road and blocked the light rail tracks, disrupting services to and from the center of the capital.
Dozens of the other demonstrators blocked another major junction further down Jaffa Road, under the Chords Bridge at the city entrance, police said.
“Forces are working at the scene to keep the thoroughfares open and enable the passage of the light rail,” police said in a statement.
Officers directed traffic to other routes around the area and only succeeded in reopening the road after several hours.
The demonstration was called by the extremist Jerusalem Faction, a group that has led protests against the draft of ultra-Orthodox community members into the army. It was organized in support of ultra-Orthodox seminary student Gamliel Mahdani who did not file paperwork for a deferment of his compulsory army service. Mahdani is the son of the rabbi of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in the central town of Or Yehuda.
Military police arrested Mahdani at his home last Wednesday. The Jaffa Military Court on Sunday extended his arrest until Thursday.
The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies, and many in the community shun military service, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis. However, there is opposition to the arrangement from many in the broader population who want the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burden of defending the country.
Extremist ultra-Orthodox factions that shun the State of Israel and deny the state’s authority prevent their members from even showing up at the draft office to receive a deferral, rendering them deserters.
Israel’s current political deadlock can be traced back to political wrangling over the enlistment of yeshiva students. In May, less than two months after voters appeared to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a mandate to form a new government, coalition talks collapsed.
The sticking point was a draft law obligating ultra-Orthodox men to participate in Israel’s mandatory military draft. Ultra-Orthodox parties wanted to soften the text of the law, while Avigdor Liberman and his secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu insisted he would not join the government unless the law were passed in its current form.
The Defense Ministry-drafted bill being debated would have set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.
In December the Israel Defense Forces announced it had launched an investigation into the years-long inflation of enlistment numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, following a report on the matter by the Kan broadcaster.
According to the exposé, over the course of several years, the IDF published false numbers on the number of people joining the army from the ultra-Orthodox population, sometimes doubling or tripling the actual figures, making it seem as though the military was closer to meeting the quotas set by law than it was.