JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied Sunday in the streets of Jerusalem, blocking roads and paralyzing the city in a massive show of force against plans to require them to serve in the Israeli military.
The widespread opposition to the draft poses a challenge to the country, which is grappling with a cultural war over the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society.
The issue of army service is at the core of that struggle. Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to avoid military service, compulsory for most Jewish men, to pursue their religious studies. Older men often don't work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.
The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept Jewish culture alive through centuries of persecution.
But the exemption has enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share. The issue featured prominently in last year's election, which led to the establishment of a center-right government that has been pushing for reforms that will require ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. Parliament is expected to vote on the conscription bill this month.
"The change is beginning," Ofer Shelah, whose Yesh Atid party stands behind the push to draft the ultra-Orthodox, told Israeli Channel 10 TV. "This (law) will create a deep cultural change in the ultra-Orthodox public."
Shelah and his party believe integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the military ultimately will lead to their inclusion in the workforce and help sustain Israel's economic growth. Israel's central bank chief, as well as international bodies like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, warn that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threaten Israel's economic prospects.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox streamed toward the entrance of Jerusalem as a heavy haze settled on the gathering. Men clad in traditional black suits and hats bowed and swayed in prayer as others danced in circles. Spectators packed the balconies and roofs of nearby buildings as a loudspeaker blared prayers. Many held signs reading "the Torah shall not be forgotten." Police said more than 300,000 people attended.
The city began grinding to a halt hours before the rally began. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police officers deployed for the rally. He said authorities closed the central bus station and halted nearly all public buses into the city. In addition, public transportation inside the city was being limited from afternoon until night. Some schools and government ministries also closed early.
Usually only men attend such public demonstrations, but ultra-Orthodox community leaders encouraged women and young children to take part. A major thoroughfare in Jerusalem was closed for traffic and reserved for ultra-Orthodox women in accordance with the community's strict separation of the sexes. Many women, wearing long skirts and head coverings, held prayer books close to their faces as they prayed, while young children ran between them.
"They came out of fear of one thing: that they are going to be changed, that they will be put in a melting pot and changed," ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Israel Eichler told Israeli Channel 2 TV.
According to the draft bill up for a vote in Israel's parliament, only a fraction of eligible ultra-Orthodox Jews would be expected to serve, said Inna Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for lawmaker Shelah, who is also a member of the committee drafting the bill.
The army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers — roughly 60 percent of those of draft age — by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army, she said.
If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the bill calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.
Beginning this year, the bill would require all ultra-Orthodox Jews aged 17 and a half to register at army recruitment offices, although not all ultra-Orthodox would be obliged to serve, said Nisan Zeevi, spokesman for lawmaker Yaakov Peri, who has helped draft the bill. He said the law would permit 1,800 ultra-Orthodox Jews to forgo army service for religious studies.
Orthodox Judaism expert Menachem Friedman said the law doesn't go far enough to properly integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society. But he said Orthodox leaders are sensing growing hostility from the secular majority, which has had to foot the bill for the community's welfare.
"Israeli society is saying enough is enough," said Friedman. "Everyone understands there is a very big problem and it cannot go on this way."