Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Clash With Police in Jerusalem Over Arrest of Draft Dodgers

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Clashes between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police in Jerusalem
Clashes between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police in Jerusalem, Sept. 17, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters from the most extreme factions of their community demonstrated in Jerusalem on Sunday over the arrest of some 40 ultra-Orthodox men on allegations of army desertion. Both police and protesters appear to have used violence, but especially the former.

A particular focus of the protest was the arrest of the grandson of the rabbi of the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidic sect, who was detained two weeks ago by military police for desertion on landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The demonstration, which took place outside the army enlistment center on Rashi Street, tapered off after the sect’s leader ordered his followers to end it.

Nine protesters were detained for throwing stones at the police, while policemen were caught on camera kicking demonstrators and punching them in the face. Two protesters were taken to Hadassah Hospital’s Ein Karem facility, one with moderate injuries and the other with light injuries.

Videos published on social media showed the police violence clearly. In one clip, a policeman pushed a demonstrator so forcefully that he fell down, even though he committed no visible provocation. In another clip, policemen dragged a protester who was blocking the street and one tried to kick him. Yet another showed a policeman kicking a demonstrator, again with no sign that the demonstrator attacked him first.

Some of the clips showed policemen who weren’t dealing with a particular demonstrator coming over to just to kick him, for no apparent reason. Others showed police shoving ultra-Orthodox passersby who weren’t part of the protest.

The Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct has begun collecting testimony and footage of the violence and plans to interview the two hospitalized protesters. “It seems as if the commander on the scene lost control of the incident,” a senior law enforcement official said.

Police said in a statement that the demonstration was “exceptionally violent,” involving “hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men who rioted, blocked a main intersection with their bodies, attacked policemen and disturbed the peace. Some of the rioters even threw stones and other objects at the policemen. During these disturbances, seven policemen were wounded and needed medical care.

“In response, police were forced to use crowd-control measures and arrest nine rioters in an attempt to prevent the continuation of this violent, illegal demonstration and the blockage of roads.”

The statement also promised that the policemen’s conduct would be examined “in light of the situation on the ground, the danger to the forces and the norms of behavior expected of a policeman while enforcing the law and using force, with an emphasis on one incident seen in a clip posted on the web, in which force was ostensibly employed for purposes other than enforcement.” “Nevertheless, we view any attempt to harm policemen, riot, act violently and disturb the peace with severity, since these exceed the bounds of freedom of expression and protest and constitute a harsh blow to the rule of law and normal life for residents of the capital,” the police statement concluded.

Earlier, the protesters gathered at Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community. The area was closed to traffic and a large contingent of police was deployed in advance of the demonstration.

The protesters then marched toward the enlistment center. Along the way, some of them threw trash containers into the street and blocked Malchei Yisrael Street, the main thoroughfare in the Geula neighborhood. Shouting matches broke out between protesters and motorists who were trying to make their way through. Some of the demonstrators laid down in the street, a police statement said.

During the protest, the office of Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) issued a statement saying that, following a request by Gafni to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it has been agreed to release the Hasidic rabbi’s grandson from military prison by the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which starts Wednesday evening. A young women who was also arrested by the military would be released as well, the statement said.

Despite the announcement that the rabbi’s grandson would be released, protesters continued demonstrating, explaining that other young ultra-Orthodox men remain under arrest. A number of demonstrators told Haaretz they were also protesting this month’s decision by the High Court of Justice, which struck down the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service while they are studying in yeshiva. 

Sunday’s protest was organized after the followers of Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok, a radically anti-Zionist sect, realized they were unable to free the grandson. In notices in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the community had called for “days of rage to stop the plague of decrees of annihilation.” The protesters said the rabbi’s grandson was just one of some 40 young people who, as they put it, are rotting in prison because of “their desire to preserve their Judaism.”

The rabbi’s grandson’s brother was arrested four months ago for army desertion on returning from a year in the United States. He was sentenced to four days in military prison.

The sect is considered extremist, but not violent. Its members rarely hold demonstrations and don’t call for attacking ultra-Orthodox soldiers. Sunday’s demonstration was thus unusual.