A massive demonstration by ultra-Orthodox Jews against the government’s proposed military draft law brought hundreds of thousands of Haredim to Jerusalem on Monday, virtually closing off the city. Route 1 into the capital was closed to all traffic except for public transportation, and heavy traffic was reported on other routes in the city.
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By 5:30 P.M. around 500,000 protesters, according to police estimates, had gathered near the Chords Bridge at the main entrance to Jerusalem. Some 2,000 buses brought in demonstrators from outside the capital.
About 3,500 police officers, Border Police officers and volunteers were on hand at the demonstration, according to Jerusalem District police chief Maj. Gen. Yossi Pariente. The rally, which ended at about 6 P.M., was peaceful, with soldiers and police officers mingling with the crowd without incident.
Under the hazy yellow skies, one could walk for miles in any direction through Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods in a human forest without reaching the end: around the Kirya government compound, along and under the Chords Bridge, through Kiryat Moshe, Mekor Baruch and Romema, and around the army enlistment office on Rashi Street.
Leaders along the entire spectrum of the Haredi community, from the Sephardi Shas party to the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, called on their followers to attend, and they responded. Men could be seen roaming the streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of a leading rabbi standing on the balcony of his apartment and observing the goings-on.
The crocheted kippot of the Haredi Zionists were more in evidence on the outskirts of their Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, as this group also sought to identify with the ultra-Orthodox struggle. But few of their rabbis had called on their followers to take part in a rally that was counter to the position of Habayit Hayehudi, a party popular with Haredi Zionists.
No speeches were planned, or made. Instead, the rally took on a religious flavor. Shofars were blown, and rabbis representing the various communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, recited from Psalms.
The high point of the gathering was when Rabbi Reuven Elbaz led the crowd in the recitation of the prayer “Shema Yisrael,” which was followed by the crowd chanting “The Lord, He is God.”
A special declaration was then read containing the rally’s resolutions, which were based on decisions by consensus of the three major councils of Torah sages, which met last week in Bnei Brak – that of Shas, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael. The crowd cheered when the resolution was read “calling on yeshiva and kollel students not to be drafted into the army under any circumstances, not to give in to temptations and punishments of any kind and not to cooperate with the plans of the army in any way whatsoever.”
Another resolution called on the government not to pass a law “that would harm those studying Torah and force them to leave Torah study to the point of throwing them into jail, which is an uprooting of the Torah and sacrilege against Heaven.”
Many people came with their children in tow, such as Yitzhak Ravitz, chairman of Degel Hatorah and deputy mayor of the ultra-Orthodox town of Betar Ilit. Ravitz rejected claims that the new law would be good for Haredim. “Of course it’s bad, they are trying to restrict students of Torah and it doesn’t matter if you think the way is efficient or not,” he told Haaretz. Pointing to his 13-year-old son, one of his 11 children who came with him to the rally, Ravitz said: “I’m here because of him. If he has to go to the army, the state will fall apart. I am a Zionist, and I fear that the State of Israel is in mortal danger if it raises a hand against the Torah.”
A Gerer Hasid said: “Yair Lapid has made us all zealots. Thanks to Lapid, we can build the wall again. Children in the street are afraid today, as if the Gestapo is coming, and this is a gift that Lapid gave the Haredim.”