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Israel's ultra-Orthodox stage huge anti-draft protest

Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service
Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to Jerusalem's streets for a mass prayer vigil Sunday in protest at plans to conscript their young men for Israeli military or civilian service.

Wearing white shirts under dark suits and donning black hats, a sea of ultra-Orthodox men and boys representing the three major streams -- Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardi -- were united in a show of force against impending legislation that could change their legal status in the Jewish state.

Bearing signs with slogans such as "war on religion" and "military service will not be imposed upon us," the defiant masses took part in prayer and psalm recitals led by a series of cantors, blasted through huge loudspeakers set up around Jerusalem's main road in and out of the city.

Yaakov Biton, a 28-year-old resident of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, told AFP that he and his peers from a theology seminary came to Jerusalem "to show that we are not afraid of the criminal sanctions, we are united."

"We will win in the end, the Torah will win," said Biton, referring to Jewish written law.

Police said "hundreds of thousands" took part in the demonstration, which saw major disruption of traffic.

Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service
Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service

In a rare move, women, who are normally kept out of the ultra-Orthodox public sphere, were allowed to participate. Small groups of mothers and daughters stood at the fringes of the rally.

The protest was sparked by cuts in government funding to Jewish seminaries, or yeshivas, and a planned crackdown on young ultra-Orthodox men seeking to avoid Israel's compulsory military draft.

The cabinet last year agreed to end a practice under which tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox were exempted from military service if they were in full-time yeshiva study.

New legislation is so far incomplete, but a parliamentary committee has approved a draft bill setting quotas for ultra-Orthodox men joining the military or civilian public service, to be implemented from 2017.

The proposed law allows for sanctions against men who evade service, including imprisonment, a clause that enraged the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which said it would amount to the Jewish state sending people to prison for practicing their religion.

Military service is compulsory in Israel, with men serving three years and women two.

- 'Don't change status quo' -

Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service
Hundreds of thousands of Ultra Orthodox Jews gather on March 2, 2014, in Jerusalem to demonstrate against any plans to make them undergo military service

The move to force ultra-Orthodox men to serve their country is seen by many Israelis as amending the historic injustice of the exemption handed to the ultra-Orthodox in 1948, when Israel was created. At that time they were a small segment of society.

Owing to their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community has since swelled to make up roughly 10 percent of the country's population of just over eight million, and continues to be the fastest growing group in Israel.

The current exemption from military service is only given to ultra-Orthodox men who commit to remain in their yeshivas, and who are hence not available for work.

This creates poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and is seen by Israel's leadership as a growing threat to the national economy.

The new policy is mainly aimed at increasing ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce, but they perceive it as the state seeking to change their traditional religious lifestyle.

"We call on all seminary students to not enlist in the army under any terms," the loudspeakers blared at the end of the event, "and to not cooperate with the authorities."

"We call on the government to not change the status quo on conscription and other matters of state and religion," the organisers said.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew takes part in a mass prayer vigil in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014 to protest plans to conscript young ultra-Orthodox men for Israeli military or civilian service
An ultra-Orthodox Jew takes part in a mass prayer vigil in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014 to protest plans to conscript young ultra-Orthodox men for Israeli military or civilian service

Parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein issued a statement during the event, saying he feared for the "unity of society" and warning of a civil war.

But the rally was disciplined and passed off without incident or any confrontation with police, who kept their distance from the demonstrators.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police were deployed to maintain order.

Participants dispersed at the end in song and dance, heading to their homes in the nearby ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhoods in busses, leaving roads and pavements littered with black and white pamphlets.

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