‘We will die and not enlist’: Extremist Haredim block major highway for hours

Policewoman caught on video violently kicking demonstrator, as issue of ultra-Orthodox draft exemption returns to limelight

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of the extremist Jerusalem Faction blocked a major north-south highway near Bnei Brak for several hours on Sunday in protest of growing calls for an end to blanket draft exemptions for Haredim.

Videos showed demonstrators blocking Route 4 near the Givat Shmuel interchange while dancing and sitting on the road.

Some held signs reading, “We tell the High Court – we’ll go to jail over the army” and “We will die and not enlist.”

Police forcefully removed the protesters from the road to allow traffic through.

One border policewoman was filmed aggressively kicking a protester sitting on the road.

Police said some protesters called officers “Nazis” during the demonstration.

Meanwhile, some ultra-Orthodox protesters in Petah Tikva blocked the light rail route in the town, temporarily shutting down the transportation system.

The Jerusalem Faction, an extremist ultra-Orthodox group numbering some 60,000 members, is considered among the most conservative of Haredi factions and regularly demonstrates against enlistment of yeshiva students.

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with ultra-Orthodox military service since a 2017 High Court decision that determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and unconstitutional while ordering the state to find a solution to the issue.

A law that authorizes the exemption expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation to extend it is set to expire at the end of March, after which the military will not be authorized to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from the draft.

While the Haredi-backed coalition seeks to legislate a new law extending the exemption, the matter has become increasingly contentious, given the war in Gaza and the great strain it has put on the serving population.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced Wednesday he opposes extending blanket exemptions and that he would only back legislation on the matter that is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the cabinet for the sake of the war effort.

According to Gallant, manpower strains on the army during fighting in Gaza and on the northern border require the contribution of all sectors of society, making the exemption that ultra-Orthodox men receive in order to study in yeshivas impractical.

Gallant’s announcement was welcomed by Gantz, but met with immediate Haredi backlash and vague threats that the issue could bring down the government.

In a lecture last week, Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, an influential member of the rabbinical advisory panel steering coalition party United Torah Judaism, underlined ultra-Orthodox opposition to any compromise.

“We won’t agree to anything in regards to drafting yeshiva students,” he said, according to the Haredim10 news website. “Nobody can force us to abandon the Torah.”

Misplaced hostility

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported Sunday that the head of the Chabad branch in the northern city of Rosh Pina had his truck vandalized with graffiti reading “Parasites” — a term sometimes used to deride ultra-Orthodox for their perceived lack of contribution to society.

But Rabbi Chai Rothenberg actually served in an elite IDF unit, and has been using the vandalized car to deliver food to IDF soldiers. The network said that since the beginning of the war, he has held over 50 events for soldiers stationed in the north.

It was the second time in the past two months that Rothenberg’s vehicle has been vandalized; last time, vandals sprayed graffiti reading, “Leeches.”

“It’s hurtful more than anything,” Rothenberg told Channel 12. “I come from a family of combat soldiers. My father was in [the elite] Sayeret Haruv, my uncle was killed in a war, and I served in the Counterterrorism Unit, so it’s hurtful.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road during a protest against drafting of Haredi Jews to the IDF, Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

“You don’t know me, so how do you judge me? I may be a Jew that keeps Torah and mitzvot more than others, but we’re all Jews, and it hurts, which is the opposite of what I want.”

The rabbi reportedly received supportive messages from soldiers to whom he brought food during the war.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemptions has swept back to the fore of the political agenda in recent weeks after the IDF announced plans to add time onto mandatory service terms for military recruits and to delay retirement for some reservists while also raising the number of days they must serve annually, as it prepares for extended fighting in Gaza and the possibility of war against the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

The plan was met with fierce backlash, with a number of lawmakers, including some within the coalition, demanding the shortage be made up by the ultra-Orthodox.

Attempts to draft legislation have failed to bridge gaps between mainstream lawmakers who seek a more equal sharing of the burden of military service and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties that demand exemptions continue and whose support Netanyahu’s governments have relied on to stay in power.

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last week that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received a deferral from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record. Some 540 of those decided to enlist since the war started, the IDF said.

A police officer removing an ultra-Orthodox protester from the street, Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

The state last month told the High Court that it needed more time to legislate a new draft law because it had been impossible to do so during the ongoing war. It said it would outline what the draft law would include by March 24, and then asked to be given an extension until the end of June to pass the legislation.

The court, hearing petitions on the issue on Monday, gave the state until March 24 to explain why it was not drafting the ultra-Orthodox.

Most Popular
read more: