On Sunday, a huge number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis rallied against the proposed draft law at the entrance to Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands — organizers said half a million while police put the number at some 300,000 — attended the protest, which sealed off the entrance to the capital for hours. Unlike previous protests, the event was largely peaceful, without clashes between demonstrators and police.
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox have gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem to protest a draft law moving through the Knesset which would impose criminal sanctions on Haredi draft dodgers.
Carrying placards calling to rise up for the “Torah of Moshe” and declaring they would never submit to a Knesset bill that would dramatically increase IDF service among the ultra-Orthodox communities, protesters have created a sea of black and white near the central bus station in the capital.
Many are wearing sackcloth, symbolizing mourning for the creation of the law, following decades during which the ultra-Orthodox were able to claim an exemption from army service.
Some 3,500 police and other personnel were securing the massive demonstration, which is expected to draw upwards of half a million people, making it one of the largest in the country’s history.
Organizers billed the event as a “million-man protest” and a prayer rally.
The Magen David Adom rescue service said it had upped its readiness level to prepare for the crush of demonstrators at the event near the entrance to the capital.
The demonstration is expected to bring much of the capital to a standstill.
By 3 p.m. traffic issues had rippled outside the capital, with heavy congestion reported on area highways.
Police say the demonstration will snarl traffic, close roads and shut down public transportation around the entrance to the city and the Knesset.
Route 1, the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, closed after 2 p.m. Sunday from the Latrun area to the capital, and the Jerusalem Central Bus Station also shut down in the afternoon, along with much public transportation in the city.
“We have no intention of the large demonstration turning into a riot,” Jerusalem District police chief Yossi Pariente told Ynet. “We have coordinated with the protesters that there won’t be riots and we hope they stand by it.”
In the past, ultra-Orthodox protests over the draft issue have turned violent. Earlier this month in Ashdod, a protest that drew several hundred led to over a dozen arrests for rioting.
A major proponent of the Haredi draft, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, came out against the demonstration on Saturday night, asserting that “military service is not a ‘decree’” – as some ultra-Orthodox leaders have been referring to it – “but rather a big mitzvah.”
The latest version of the draft bill has faced scathing criticism from ultra-Orthodox leaders over its inclusion of individual criminal sanctions against draft-dodgers that would kick in if the community as a whole failed to meet rising quotas for the draft. But it has also faced criticism from proponents of an equal draft for delaying such criminal sanctions until mid-2017, after the next election.
Police say that contrary to organizers’ assessments, some 300,000 protesters are at the rally.
MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party tells Walla News that there are 600,000 present, and that the effort is an “extraordinary success.”
“We are sad that it has come to this. I hope that there will be no provocation on the sidelines and that it remains a prayer [rally]. The Torah saves the Jewish people and will continue to protect the Jewish nation, and we here will continue to learn Torah,” he says.
The rally, which at 400,000-strong would make it one of the largest in the country’s history, can be heard clear on the other side of the city.
The largest gathering in the country’s history occurred just a few kilometers from today’s protest, as some 850,000 people, according to some estimates, attended the funeral of Shas leader Ovadia Yosef on October 7, 2013.