By Ap – PUBLISHED: 17:47 EST, 9 March 2014
Ten city blocks of Manhattan became a river of black Sunday as 50,000 dark-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets to protest Israel’s proposal to force their young boys into its army.
The gathering took up a stretch of Water Street, with demonstrators standing behind police barricades amid tight security as they prayed in solidarity with their brethren in Israel.
‘These kids, a lot of them don’t know how to hold a gun. They don’t know what physical warfare is,’ said Long Island rabbinical student Shmuel Gruis.
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The throngs of demonstrators briefly shut down Water and Wall Streets in Manhattan’s financial district.
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is expected to vote on the conscription bill later this month.
The bill, to go into effect in 2017, would impose criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers. However, yeshiva students would have the right to defer service until age 26.
Gruis, 18, from Phoenix clutched two tomes of Jewish prayers as he hurried to the male section of the rally.
Organizers kept to tradition, with men and women in separate groups as they are at religious events.
‘Their whole world and their whole lifestyle is peace and love and in doing mitzvahs,’ he said, using the Yiddish word for good deeds. ‘And you take a bunch of kids out of the environment where they come from – in my eyes, it’s wrong.’
Sunday’s prayer event brought together a community of New York’s most Orthodox Jews, based in Brooklyn and in the village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, north of the city.
‘We’re all united against military service for religious men in Israel because it doesn’t allow for religious learning,’ said Peggy Blier, an interior designer from Brooklyn. ‘The Israeli government is looking to destroy religious society and make the country into a secular melting pot.’
The huge gathering was itself spillover from violent protests in Israel that broke out last month in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling ordered funding halted to ultra-Orthodox seminaries whose students dodge the draft and laid bare one of the deepest rifts in Israeli society, highlighting the fundamental disagreements between its secular majority and a devout minority over the character of the Jewish state.
And last weekend, 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 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.
STANDING IN SOLIDARITY: NEW YORK ULTRA-ORTHODOX JEWS DEMONSTRATE IN SHOW OF SUPPORT FOR BRETHREN IN ISRAEL
Sunday’s demonstration on the streets of New York City briefly shut down Wall Street and Water Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, but it was a shadow of the massive waves of protests that crippled the holy city of Jerusalem just last weekend.
The ultra-Orthodox in New York took to the streets in a show of solidarity for their brethren in Israel.
The Israeli government has long exempted the super devout from their near-universal conscription, but in recent weeks have proposed changing that rule for at least some of the ultra-Orthodox.
The ultra-Orthodox aim to live a life strictly dedicated to the study of the Torah and many see a government requirement that they serve in the military as a form of religious persecution.
Police in Jerusalem said a staggering 300,000 protestors attended the event last Sunday.
Organizers of the New York City sister protest put their own numbers at 50,000.
As the largest Jewish community outside Israel, the New Yorkers have tight bonds with Orthodox Israelis, some of whom emigrated from the United States.
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.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have for years been exempt from military service, which is compulsory for other Jewish Israelis. The arrangement has caused widespread resentment and featured prominently in last year’s election, after which the ultra-Orthodox parties lost ground and found themselves outside the governing coalition.
The issue of army service is at the core of a cultural war over the place of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to skip compulsory military service to pursue their religious studies. Older men often avoid the workforce 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 maintaining a pious way of life that has kept the Jewish people alive through centuries of persecution.
Leaders of the community, which in Hebrew is known as ‘Haredim,’ or those who fear God, say their followers would rather sit in jail than join the military. They charge their ancient brand of Judaism is under siege and warn of an uprising if parliament approves the draft plan.
Yair Sheleg, an expert on the Israeli religious sector at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said the outbursts reflect a genuine rage over the proposed plan but also a show of strength to try to limit its impact.
‘They understand that things can’t go on the way they have and they will have to make some concessions to the state, but they are hoping to limit the damage,’ he said. ‘For the first time, they are starting to really be affected.’
Not all the ultra-Orthodox are vehemently opposed to enlistment and inclusion in Israeli society. Due to its high birthrate and the relatively low participation in the workforce, the ultra-Orthodox community suffers from high unemployment and poverty.
Voices have begun to emerge criticizing the ultra-Orthodox education system, which teaches students about Judaism but very little math, English or science. More than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox and government statistics project that if these trends continue, the ultra-Orthodox could make up 15 percent of the country’s population by 2025.
The tide has already begun to turn. In 2011, for instance, 55 percent of ultra-Orthodox women and 45 percent of the men held jobs, up from 48 percent and 33 percent respectively nine years earlier, according to Israel’s central bank and its central bureau of statistics. The numbers, while still far below the national average of around 80 percent, show the community is far from the homogenous mass viewed by outsiders.
These are the Satmar, one group of Hasidic Jews – as distinguished from the Lubavitchers, the Bobovers, the Skverers and other Hasidic groups. They are arguably the largest group, and their official teaching is that the State of Israel should not exist. While this doesn’t stop them from taking enormous amounts of public assistance from the government, they object to serving in the armed forces of that same government.
There is a more extreme faction that is not part of the Satmar but has members who have been affiliated with it called the Neturei Karta – this group actively collaborates with Hamas to destroy the State of Israel.
It is a longstanding theological dispute, at the heart of which is the belief that only the Moshiach (Messiah) can restore Jewish government in Israel, that secular government is an abomination. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews are also on welfare in the US.