Thousands of haredi Jews gathered in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square on Sunday to protest Israel’s new draft legislation, which they claim is “an attack on our freedom of religion.”
Among the signs displayed: “Not One Soul is Allowed to be Trapped in the Zionist’s Army’s Web” “Study Torah in Prison Rather than Join the Zionist Army.”
“Today, in the Holy Land, powerful secular groups seek to undermine our flourishing houses of Torah study and threaten their very survival,” declared Rabbi Pinchas Young, head of a Monsey yeshiva. “We are gathered here today to say, respectfully, that … we simply cannot, will not, and must not allow this to happen.”
The exemption of yeshiva students from compulsory military service [required of all other Jewish Israelis, male and female] has been a fact of life in Israel since its earliest days. But on May 29, a Knesset committee agreed on draft legislation that would force most haredi men between the ages of 18-22 to enlist. Going forward, the law would also impose the same criminal penalties on haredi draft dodgers that apply to the general population. It is yet to be approved by the Knesset.
The legislation’s sponsors argue that an ongoing exemption of the fast-growing haredi population is becoming socially and militarily insupportable. Sunday’s protest, however, was based on a view that the legislation is an intentional attack against religion.
“We were warned beforehand that the purpose of the Zionist country is only to forcefully uproot religion,” Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger Yesivas, a prominent Satmar rabbi, wrote in a poster publicizing the rally, and “…now they are trying with all their might to uproot religious learning in the Holy Land, to destroy yeshivas, to force Torah students into the army or to prison and to turn to the rest of the Jews there against us.” The poster, distributed in haredi communities throughout the tri-state area, contained similar statements issued and signed mostly by Satmar rabbis. Like sentiments were echoed by a few of the speakers, who referred to the Israeli government as “the rule of evil.”
“The army doesn’t need these yeshiva students,” said one of the rally’s participants, Rabbi William Handler, a Satmar spokesman. “They [the Israeli government] just want to use the army, the big secular ‘melting pot,’ to assimilate them.”
He added sadly, “You’re not a bad person; you’re simply acting out of misguided notions. You think it’s the IDF that’s protecting Israel, but it’s the Torah, and the yeshivas studying it, that keep the army strong…”
Though the largely anti-Zionist Satmar community organized the rally, many prominent non-chasidic Jews attended as well, conditioning their participation on the toning down of anti-Zionist rhetoric.
In the rally’s closing remarks, Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, head of the largest Satmar yeshiva in Kiryas Joel, declared: “Hear, O Israel. We are close today in a war against the enemies of religion. Today’s protest is not ending tonight. Today’s protest is only the start of an outright war against our enemies, the haters of religion.”