Hundreds of Thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest Against Forced Army Service

Incredible moment hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews brought Jerusalem to a stand-still in protest against forced army service

300,000 took part in prayer against draft bill to abolish ultra-Orthodox exemption from compulsory military service
Jewish leaders unusually permitted women and children to attend rally calling for protection of religious traditions
Topic was a major issue in last year's election, leading to voters electing centre-right government that supports the bill
Experts claim it is a bid by leaders to integrate ultra-Orthodox into society and workforces to boost economy
By Mia De Graaf

PUBLISHED: 16:27 EST, 2 March 2014 | UPDATED: 16:53 EST, 2 March 2014

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews brought Jerusalem to a stand-still by taking to the streets in protest against a new bill that will force them into mandatory army conscription.

More than 300,000 demonstrators held a mass prayer in the city centre as just 3,500 police were drafted in to control the outcry.

It comes as Israel grapples with a cultural war over the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society, with the issue of army service is at the core of that struggle.

Stand-still: Men, women and children blocked cars as they swarmed the streets of Jerusalem today for a mass prayer opposing compulsory military service

More than 300,000 took to the streets after the new centre-right government proposed to strip ultra-Orthodox Jews of their exemption from service

Beginning this year, the bill would require all ultra-Orthodox Jews aged 17 and a half to register at army recruitment offices

Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up eight per cent of Israel's 8 million citizens, have been allowed to avoid military service, compulsory for most Jewish men, to pursue their religious studies.

The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study to preserve Jewish learning, heritage, and a pious way of life.

But the exemption has enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share.

The issue featured prominently in last year's election, and voters elected a centre-right government that proposed ultra-Orthodox Jews should serve in the army.

Parliament is expected to vote on the conscription bill this month.

'The change is beginning,' Ofer Shelah, whose Yesh Atid party supports the bill, told Israeli Channel 10 TV. 'This (law) will create a deep cultural change in the ultra-Orthodox public.'

Shelah and his party believe integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the military will lead to their inclusion in the workforce and help sustain Israel's economic growth.

Since 1948, when Israel was founded, seminary students have been permitted to dedicate themselves to their studies to keep the traditions alive

People sat on roofs and balconies as the crowds below, controlled by just 3,500 police, took over every stretch of road in the city during the open mass

Men clad in black clothing danced around the streets. Their outcry comes at the point of a culture clash in Israel, with army conscription a central issue

Israel's central bank chief warns that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threaten Israel's economic prospects.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox streamed toward the entrance of Jerusalem as a heavy haze settled on the gathering.

Men clad in traditional black suits and hats bowed and swayed in prayer as others danced in circles.

Spectators packed the balconies and roofs of nearby buildings as a loudspeaker blared prayers. Many held signs reading 'the Torah shall not be forgotten.'

The city began grinding to a halt hours before the rally began. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police officers deployed for the rally. He said authorities closed the central bus station and halted nearly all public buses into the city.

In addition, public transportation inside the city was being limited from afternoon until night. Some schools and government ministries also closed early.

Public transport had to be limited from midday until night, with some schools and government ministries also closed as the crowds refused to move

The ultra-Orthodox community makes up eight per cent of Jerusalem's eight million inhabitants. Secular Jews have protested for years against the 'unfair' rules

Usually only men attend such public demonstrations, but ultra-Orthodox community leaders encouraged women and young children to take part. A major thoroughfare in Jerusalem was closed for traffic and reserved for ultra-Orthodox women in accordance with the community's strict separation of the sexes.

Many women, wearing long skirts and head coverings, held prayer books close to their faces as they prayed, while young children ran between them.

'They came out of fear of one thing: that they are going to be changed, that they will be put in a melting pot and changed,' ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Israel Eichler told Israeli Channel 2 TV.

According to the draft bill up for a vote in Israel's parliament, only a fraction of eligible ultra-Orthodox Jews would be expected to serve, said Inna Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for lawmaker Shelah, who is also a member of the committee drafting the bill.

Prayer sheets were handed out to the masses who sang and shouted their rights to sustain the tradition that has survived years of persecution

The bill is a bid to integrate ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israeli society and workforces as the government grapples to find ways to boost the economy

Orthodox experts claim it is the latest in a number of moves that give the sense of growing hostility from the secular movement

The army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers - roughly 60 percent of those of draft age - by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army, she said.

If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the bill calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.

Beginning this year, the bill would require all ultra-Orthodox Jews aged 17 and a half to register at army recruitment offices, although not all ultra-Orthodox would be obliged to serve, said Nisan Zeevi, spokesman for lawmaker Yaakov Peri, who has helped draft the bill.

He said the law would permit 1,800 ultra-Orthodox Jews to forgo army service for religious studies.

Orthodox Judaism expert Menachem Friedman said the law doesn't go far enough to properly integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society. But he said Orthodox leaders are sensing growing hostility from the secular majority, which has had to foot the bill for the community's welfare.

'Israeli society is saying enough is enough,' said Friedman. 'Everyone understands there is a very big problem and it cannot go on this way.'