Yesterday's ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem stretched from Yirmiyahu Street to the Russian Compound, flooding many of the capital's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and streets. Police estimated the demonstrators at 100,000, while organizers claimed 200,000.
Almost all of them were men, shouting as loudly as they could against the rule of law and for the rule of their rabbis.
The long day of demonstrations ended only after 9 P.M., when buses with signs saying "Immanuel prisoners - envoys of the Israeli nation" entered the Ma'asiyahu Prison gates, accompanied by police on motorbikes. The passengers, 35 men, will serve a two-week prison term for contempt of court, for having violated a 2009 High Court of Justice ruling ordering them to integrate Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls at the Beit Yaakov school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel.
The marches and rallies in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak were perhaps the largest ultra-Orthodox demonstrations ever seen here. The protesters gave the impression that they were uniting behind the most important Haredi values, as determined by the Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis.
The leader of the "Lithuanian" sect, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who recently turned 100, came out to Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan Street to watch the procession. Other rabbis also attended, including the Slonim Grand Rabbi, the patron of the Ashkenazi parents from Immanuel. He bade his people farewell at police headquarters in the Russian Compound.
Every Knesset member from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party participated in the demonstrations, accompanying the men heading for prison as though they were heroes. The MKs intend to visit the prison many times in the next two weeks, and organizers are already planning the next demonstrations.
The 35 fathers from Immanuel, who left their homes with suitcases, were applauded throughout the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
"Make way for them!" the Jerusalem rally organizer cried out, and the sea of demonstrators parted to let the line of men and their children, wearing red ribbons on their chest declaring "a prisoner sanctifies the name of Heaven," go by. Some wore fake handcuffs.
Despite the crowd's euphoria, many continued to curse their enemy: When one of the parents mentioned the High Court of Justice, the crowd booed. When he mentioned the petitioner who began the court case, they booed again. Some carried placards saying "Pharaoh, Antiochus, Czar Nicholas, High Court of Justice."
As the Ashkenazi Haredi leadership flexed its muscles, the Sephardi Haredi party Shas mostly kept quiet and refrained from urging its people to come out and demonstrate. But the organizers brought Sephardi speakers to show that they were not prejudiced against Sephardim.
Two of the three speakers at the Jerusalem demonstration were kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri and Meir Almaliah, one of the fathers who went to prison. Batzri, who led the prayers, used a Sephardi melody, and the crowd joined in.
The third speaker - Rabbi Yosef Efrati, a confidant of Rabbi Elyashiv's - said, "We have gathered to protest against the incitement alleging that there is discrimination against our Sephardi brothers. We have gathered to protest against the man [petitioner Yoav Lalum] who raised his hand against Moses' Torah."
The procession drove through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, headed by buses containing the girls' families. The parents got off midway and the crowd danced with them ecstatically. The parents also stopped for a blessing from Rabbi Elyashiv, who waited in his car on the street corner, as people cheered and sang from balconies and rooftops.
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