The road leading to Jerusalem, eerily tinted a hazy yellow, was empty of traffic Sunday afternoon as hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied in protest against legislation calling for the conscription of Haredi youth. If passed, the new law would mark an end to a status quo that dates back to the state’s inception, a deal put in place by Ben-Gurion effectively exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military and national service, allowing them instead to devote their lives to Torah study in yeshivas. In 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court found that arrangement to be unconstitutional and demanded the Knesset come up with a more egalitarian solution. When it became clear that the solution—the cornerstone of Yair Lapid’s platform in last year’s elections, and the product of three ministerial committees—would soon become the law of the land (“Zionism has returned,” Lapid crowed in a press conference last month), a day of protest was declared.
The highway leading to the capital was closed down early in the afternoon, as was the central bus station. Loudspeakers played heart-wrenchingly somber Hasidic music that carried as far east as the Mahane Yehuda market. An emcee interrupted the songs intermittently, urging the modest and righteous women of Jerusalem not to veer off Jaffa street—where the impromptu ezrat nashim, or women’s section, was located—so as not to spoil what he called the grandest event since the revelation on Mount Sinai. Indeed, while the morning’s headlines in the secular press had referred to the event as “the million man rally,” the event’s organizers claimed to be aiming for a more modest 600,000—the same as the number of Israelites who awaited Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai (the final estimates for the rally were between 250,000 and 500,000).
The style of the pashkvilim, the humorlessly melodramatic broadsides that paper the walls of Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, was echoed in the tone of the signs hoisted by the demonstrators. The slogans ran the gamut from the biblical (Jacob’s prayer: “deliver me from the hand of my brother,” Esau; Queen Esther’s cry: “we are sold, I and my people”) to others more commonly heard on Holocaust Memorial Day (“We shall not forgive or forget”). The English-language placards, meant as they were for foreign consumption, were slightly more subtle. One read: “A Civil Uprising Against Suppression of Religion.”
By contrast, the proceedings themselves were fairly subdued. After completing the mincha prayer service, psalms were read and a shofar blown. The event was unique in that it succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in a rare show of solidarity, as well as for its massive female turnout. Aside from the odd tire set on fire, the only instance of civil disobedience could be found in the rally’s manifesto, recited towards the end of afternoon. It called on the assembled “not to enlist in the army under any circumstance, not to succumb to any temptations or punishments and not to cooperate with the army in any way whatsoever.”
Whether or not Haredi youth will ever be put to that test is unclear, and at the very least it looks like it won’t be happening any time soon. The new legislation calls for a three-year “adjustment period,” meaning compulsory service wouldn’t begin before the summer of 2017. Even then, many ultra-Orthodox youth will continue to receive exemptions. What’s more, the language of the proposed law is murky in its discussion of whose job it is determine whether enlistment of the Haredim has reached its targeted numbers, a prerequisite for any penalizing of draft dodgers.
Still, the law’s passage would mean the requirement that those exempt from military service commit to yeshiva study and not seek employment will be lifted, potentially introducing a vital new demographic into the Israeli workforce. But while the calamity that Sunday’s protestors feared may be nearer than ever before, it’s still nowhere near fruition.