The Apocalypse That Wasn't in Jerusalem

After they didn't set the capital on fire, could it be the Haredim are starting to accept the idea of being drafted?

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

The apocalypse never came. Jerusalem still stands, as it has stood for thousands of years, its streets quiet, its residents battling only the yellow haze of a sandy, dry winter. No sign of impending civil war, nothing to suggest it isn't just another day.

Some had expected otherwise. On Sunday, a million Haredim were supposed to descend upon Jerusalem, besieging the capital city, blocking the exits. A massive, indomitable show of strength: a million-man march against the government’s conscription bill that would impose - for the first time in the history of Israel - criminal sanctions on Haredi draft dodgers.

It could have been much, much worse - riots in the streets, Jerusalem on fire, thousands of heated Haredim clashing with police, Israel on the verge of civil war.

What we got was apeaceful rally, featuring rage that stayed bottled-up and silent prayer, not unlike the nonviolent social-justice protest rallies of 2011. The rhetoric behind the demonstration, rhetoric meant to make it the mother of all Haredi protests, featured words like “exile”, “ruin” and “tyranny”, but the rally itself ended with a joyous display of song and dance.

No speeches were made, no major incidents occurred (a few minor ones did). In the end attendance was sparser than expected: 300,000 according to the police, 500,000 according to the organizers. Not a million, that’s for sure.

All in all, it was an impressive - even if less impressive than some had previously thought - show of strength. Impressive, not apocalyptic. And definitely not what we’d been “promised” by the Haredi leadership.

Only bullets are dodged ones

Some felt Israel dodged a bullet. Many had feared conflict that would further divide our people, said Likud MK Rubi Rivlin: "I salute the Haredi protesters for the way they protested, no matter how I feel about the law for ‘equal burden."

His relief is understandable. For years Haredi leaders have threatened that drafting Haredim would lead to civil war. That the ultra-Orthodox sector, already at odds with much of Israeli society, would rebel. That the catastrophe would be unimaginable.

Just this June, speaking on the settler radio channel Arutz Sheva, Rabbi Meir Porush said the "W" word - though he immediately backtracked, noting: “We don’t have guns, of course, and even if we did…”). Then last month, after the draft reform committee approved criminal sanctions for Haredi draft dodgers, Porush called it a "declaration of war."

Yet war did not ensue, at least not this week. Haredi leaders called upon their followers not to resort to violence. Several protesters wore stickers that said: “You’re giving US guns?”.

A tone of silent, ominous threat lingered in the air - but that’s where it stayed.

Or, cynicism prevailed

It’s not that the haredim are not hurt, angry and unwilling to join the army. The anger is very much real. Half a million people still amount to the biggest rally in the history of Israel.

It isn't just fear. The word "Haredi" comes from the word for fear. They fear God and they fear change.

An animated video made by a young Haredi in 2012 shows army officers entering yeshivas and conscripting young men who bravely try to defend their Torahs, before succumbing. Soon they are in uniforms, holding guns, shedding their Haredi identifiers (and therefore their tradition, their way of life): their black hats, their beards, their sidelocks. The last frame of the clip shows the former yeshiva boy, now-secular and alcoholic, passed out with a bottle of booze.

Yet upset as they may be over the possibility of service, the Haredim still seem unwilling to truly break free from Israeli society. It seems mandatory draft is a pill the Haredi sector might be able to swallow.

Of course, it could be that most Haredim figure bill is just a political spectacle that will likely never go into effect.

If so, that means the apocalypse was not canceled, just postponed. And that if the state ever tries to forcibly enlist Haredim, using the new criminal sanctions it can now drop on them, we might just see true violence.

But maybe it’s best not to speculate. The apocalypse did not happen this week, and Israelis - secular and ultra-Orthodox alike - soldier on in their battle against rising food prices. And that’s good enough, for now.

Haredi anti-draft rally in Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Civil war of another type? Young Haredim arrested for attacking a Haredi soldier.Credit: Tal Mayer
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis protest the government's move to draft yeshiva students to the Israel Defense Forces, Feb. 6, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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