Jerusalem was all but shut down last week as upwards of 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, gathered in the streets to protest the recent proposal by the Israeli government to extend their compulsory military service to the Orthodox members of the Israeli population. Until now this small segment of the Israeli population has been exempt from conscription laws in place in Israel, which require two years of military service for every young male without any other exception. Today, in support for and solidarity with their brethren in Jerusalem, New York’s Orthodox Jewish population came out in numbers exceeding 50,000 to protest the plan to draft Israel’s conscientious objectors.
The Israeli population is a varied one, and includes the descendants of people who have lived in the area throughout the diaspora as well as the descendants of Holocaust survivors who fled to Israel after WWII when the small but militant country saw its inception. It also includes immigrants from elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora who sought to return to the homeland after the creation of a Jewish state. Of the many citizens of the country, a large number have turned more toward a secularized society, but a small segment, approximately eight percent, have retained an ultra-Orthodox culture devoted to religious study and the doing of good deeds.
This small subset of Israeli society differs greatly from the rest of their countrymen in that Israel saw its inception in the midst of armed conflict, and has seen ongoing conflict ever since. Begun in a struggle for independence in the midst of political scuffles between Palestine and Britain, the movement for a sovereign Jewish state emerged as a militant one, and was fed by an influx of Holocaust survivors and Zionists from elsewhere in the world who were willing to fight for a place they could call a homeland.
Raised in such a modern political society, the majority of Israelis have indicated some level of concern that one group of young men are exempt from the required military service expected of all other young Israeli males. Ultra-conservative Jews in Israel may avoid compulsory military service in the Israeli army if they are enrolled in a religious study school, called a yeshiva.
The Orthodox Haredim have indicated that for a people who grow up immersed in religious study and pacifism and who have never held a weapon, being forced into military service would be a destructive and damaging experience. This fear is shared by Orthodox Jews in New York who peopled the Manhattan prayer meeting, which shut down parts of Water and Wall Street for about an hour in support for these conscientious objectors and pacifists who fear they would be forced to fight.
There are economic concerns behind the proposal as well, which was backed by the Israeli Supreme Court. The majority of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel spend their lives in study and contemplation rather than in economic activity, and unemployment is high in their communities. As such, these groups are increasingly seen by the secular majority to be a drain on the resources of the state.
Orthodox Jews in Israel are increasingly seeking jobs and joining the wider society to a certain extent, indicating that the Haredim are not as monolithic a culture as they seem from the outside; however there have certainly been enough people concerned about possible changes to their lifestyle to produce very large protests in two major cities. New York and Orange County, together, boast the largest Orthodox Jewish populations outside of Israel, and their mirror protest today shows a concern for the futures of Orthodox Jewish boys in Israel who may soon be forced to fight for their country against their beliefs.
In Jerusalem, the matter is of enough concern to this group that the relatively small ultra-conservative faction was still large enough to take over the Israeli capital. Their brethren in the U.S. also managed quite a showing, flooding in from outlying areas to halt business for ten blocks in Manhattan. The crowds dispersed after an approximately hour-long prayer meeting, but the size of the supporting New York demonstrations indicates that Orthodox Jews in the U.S. are equally concerned over the fate of their fellow conscientious objectors in Israel.
By Kat Turner