Middle East

Israeli ultra-Orthodox in mass rally over army draft

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Media captionYolande Knell reports as thousands crowded onto the roads in Israel

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews have held a mass prayer in Jerusalem against plans to conscript more of their young men into the Israeli army.

New legislation that would end wholesale exemptions for students at Jewish seminaries is expected to pass in the coming weeks.

A draft bill sets quotas for ultra-Orthodox men to join military or civilian public service.

Those who refuse could face prison.

'Save me'

The ultra-Orthodox demonstration closed off the main entrance to Jerusalem and blocked off many roads to traffic.

Men and teenagers dressed in black hats and coats carried signs that read "The holy Torah will win" and "Please save me from the hands of my brothers".

Rabbis read prayers against the draft over loudspeakers as crowds joined in, swaying backwards and forwards.

In an unusual display of unity, all the three major ultra-Orthodox Jewish streams were represented: Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardic.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ultra-Orthodox Jews insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study

The ultra-Orthodox or haredim, say that army service would stop them devoting themselves to the study of religious scriptures, which is seen as a foundation of Jewish life.

"There are a lot of different types at this one demonstration. The real issue is that this new law will stop us practising the Torah as we should," says a yeshiva student, Yehudi. "This is another threat to the Jewish nation."

"We want to stay in education," adds another student, Shmoli. "If we are forced to go into the army there will be a lot of dangers to our religious beliefs."

"For example you have mingling of the sexes. This is not the way we were brought up."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The demonstration closed off large parts of Jerusalem

Growth group

Exemptions from military conscription were given to the ultra-Orthodox when Israel was created in 1948. At that time there were only 400 yeshiva students.

Now owing to their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox account for about 10% of the country's population of about eight million people.

They are a relatively poor social group. Most ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed because of their religious studies and rely on donations, state benefits and their wives' wages to live.

This has long caused resentment among Israel's secular majority leading to a demand for the ultra-Orthodox to share the so-called social burden.

In the past, Israel's coalition governments have often relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox partners, making it hard to make political changes that affect their communities.

However the current Israeli cabinet has no ultra-Orthodox members and parties are pushing for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make reforms.

Some Israeli political leaders hope that a new approach will ultimately see more ultra-Orthodox men also entering the workplace.

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