Crowds of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday, literally invading the city to protest against a draft bill issued by the government that wants them to serve in the army.
The demonstrators, estimated by the police to be around 300.000, were wearing the traditional black Haredi garments and took part in mass prayer, standing in front of rabbis and praying God to stop the conscription bill.
At the center of the crowd rabbis said their prayer encouraging also women and children to join their holy rally, although similar demonstrations are usually reserved to men.
Israel has quite a strict regulation when it comes to army conscription, which is compulsory for all citizens over 18 years of age and does not spare women. Men are obliged to serve three years and women for two, though some exemptions exist.
Since the foundation of the state in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox pious minority, that currently represents about 10 percent of the 8 million citizens of Israel and is known as Haredim, has been exempted from military recruitment in order to pursue their religious studies.
In recent year the position of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society has been a matter of growing frustration for secular Israelis. The latter are not happy about the Haredi way of life, as the majority of them do not work and receive generous welfare stipends from the state to study their sacred scriptures on a full-time basis.
The issue was brought up during the elections last year, and since the center-right cabinet that came out of the polls has not ultra-Orthodox in its ranks, coalition members have put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to usher in reforms that would force ultra- Orthodox to “share the burden.”
The new law prescribes the enlistment of 5.200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers by the middle of 2017. The state will offer financial incentives to religious schools that encourage their students to go to the army, but it will punish with criminal sanctions those who dodge the draft.
According to Ofer Shelal, a leader of the Yesh Atid party that is one of the main advocates of the bill, the law will mark the beginning of a much-needed cultural change within the ultra-Orthodox community and will foster a better integration between secular and religious people.
The decision to conscript members of the Haredi community appears to have also an important economic rationale, not just a cultural and social one.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Shelal’s party believes that serving in the army will help the ultra-Orthodox to integrate to the country’s workforce and foster Israel’s economic growth. Such a view is shared by Israel’s Central Bank and the OECD, according to which the high unemployment rates among ultra- Orthodoxs could hinder Israel’s future economic prospects.
The number of ultra- Orthodox in Isreal is growing very fast and many among them think the law is an attempt by the secular part of the society to try to stop their increase. Be as it may, the high number of protesters who invaded the street of Jerusalem on Sunday is a clear indication that the ultra-Orthodox community is ready to fight back.
By Stefano Salustri