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The Recent Protests in the Holy Land: An Overview


November 10, 2017

For more than three weeks now, we have seen large-scale demonstrations in many cities all over the Holy Land, against the forced draft and the imprisonment of those who refuse to comply. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested, and some of them wounded. Many people wish to know more about the reasons for these protests and the history behind Orthodox Jews and the Israeli army.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded, religious Jews have been staunchly opposed to serving in its army because they believe that the State and its wars are contrary to the Jewish religion. Indeed, when the Zionist movement began, it was denounced by all the Rabbinic authorities of the time as a violation of Judaism. The Talmud, the central Jewish legal text, states clearly that Jews are forbidden to leave exile on their own and establish a sovereign state, or fight wars against other nations. This is in addition to the most cardinal sins constantly committed in the IDF: heresy, immoral conduct and murder.

The State of Israel has always had a compulsory draft. However, understanding how vehemently the Orthodox were opposed, the early leaders of the state allowed them exemptions as long as they were enrolled in a yeshiva, an academy of religious study. Practically, all of the Orthodox community made use of this exemption, whether they were actually enrolled in yeshivas or not. The government looked the other way and did not draft the community, knowing that doing so would provoke a major ideological battle.

The new draft law, passed in 2014, put an end to this exemption. Large Orthodox communities numbering in the hundreds of thousands were suddenly faced with an existential threat. Their only wish was to live at peace with their neighbors, serve the Almighty and continue with their daily lives, and now the government wanted to them to become Zionists and help fight the state’s conflicts.

The government realized it could not induct all of this community into the IDF at once, or else they would face massive protests and civil unrest. Therefore they quickly amended the law with a provision aimed at drafting an increasing number of Orthodox Jews every year. They hoped that gradually the religious culture would change and become more accepting of army service. Their tactics for accomplishing this goal are several:

  1. They have severely narrowed the criteria for an eligible yeshiva, and they have begun to strictly enforce these rules.

  2. They try to catch any possible error in a student’s paperwork. Students must prove that they actually study in school for a given number of hours, and the yeshiva study halls are inspected to make sure everyone is present.

  3. In the induction centers, where students are required to appear annually to obtain their exemptions, men in religious-style dress, employed by the army, approach the students in a friendly manner to convince them to enlist.

  4. All public opposition to army service is squashed by the police with the utmost brutality. Even insulting a soldier in uniform and Orthodox trappings such as beard, skullcap and sidelocks is grounds for arrest. In fact, the police routinely conduct sting operations in which a police detective disguised as a religious soldier walks through a religious neighborhood while other undercover officers wait nearby, ready to pounce on the crowd as soon as someone hurls the first insult.

Presently there are about 50,000 boys obtaining exemptions from army service each year; the government’s goal is to lower that figure to 1,800 within 5 years. Each year, it becomes harder and harder to obtain the exemption.

Two schools of thought have emerged within the Orthodox community for how to grapple with this challenge. The first holds that those who meet the requirements should continue to report on time to the induction office to request their legal exemptions. But in many cases this fails; the authorities find an excuse not to grant the exemption. If the boy still refuses to serve, he is thrown into military prison. That is why there have been many protests over the past year outside of the recruiting offices when the boys are taken into custody and transferred to a military prison (many of these protests have been reported on this website, israelversusjudaism.org).

Of course, this approach does not help for those who don’t meet the requirements for an exemption to begin with. Someone may not be enrolled in a qualified yeshiva, or he may not have a perfect attendance record, etc. Needless to say, the Torah forbids any Jew from serving in the Israeli army, whether he studies Torah full time or not.

Anti-Zionist Jews have begun to realize that although this cooperative approach may have worked for decades in the past, it is no longer effective. Even if it works for some, in the long run it will not defeat this anti-Jewish government decree. More and more in the community are now adopting a second approach.

The second approach is to refuse to report to the induction center altogether, as a sign of total protest and boycott of the draft law. Thousands of boys have now chosen this option, although most would probably have qualified for the exemption. By their refusal to show up, they are sticking up for other boys in their community who cannot legally receive exemptions.

This approach has met with great success, because it has left the government at a loss for how to deal with the large number of draft evaders. They can’t follow their usual practice, when trying to oppress individuals who don’t comply with anti-religious laws, to break into a few houses in the middle of the night and arrest people. Here they would have to break into thousands of houses, which would ignite a civil war.

The draft evaders display their self-sacrifice daily. They can’t appear in any government – owned place, because they would be arrested and imprisoned immediately. If they go through any border, or when they are stopped by the police for any reason and asked for ID, they are immediately arrested. For example, a few weeks ago an Israeli citizen who lives in America came to visit the State of Israel and was arrested as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Many religious circles have become convinced that this approach of resistance is the only way to fight the law, and they have joined together to protect those brave individuals who are imprisoned. When someone is arrested for not reporting, they protest loudly until he is released. For a long time already, there have been low-key protests outside the induction center whenever someone who reported in compliance with the rules was drafted. But now the community has decided that powerful, disruptive and ongoing public protest is the only way to stop the law, and so whenever police arrest a draft evader for not appearing – a daily occurrence - massive protests are staged. The demonstrators are determined to come to the defense of the evaders and not to let them fall into the hands of the army. That is how the current wave of protests began.

The current wave of protests was sparked just over three weeks ago, on October 16, 2017, when a policeman stopping a car for a traffic violation found two draft evaders in the car and immediately arrested them. Orthodox Jews all over the country erupted in spontaneous protest: in front of the prisons, in the streets and in public areas. One particular day, Thursday, October 19 was proclaimed by the protesters as the “Day of Rage” and a great number of fierce protests took place around the country that day. During this wave, hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested.

The police practice is that when they arrest a group of protestors, check their ID and find draft evaders among them, they move the draft evaders to military prison. Around 49 draft evaders have been arrested during the current campaign. Of course, this only leads to more angry protesting in the streets, and the cycle continues.

The Rabbinical Court of the Edah HaChareidis sent a letter of appreciation to the imprisoned young men saying, “You have sanctified the name of G-d, and you are our shield from this evil decree. By taking a strong stance and going to jail, you are proclaiming your faith to the world, a faith that no power can defeat. You are the representatives of our community to announce the uncompromising position of religious Jewry not to join the Zionist army. As you protest until you are beaten and serve lengthy sentences, you are the spokesmen of the Jewish people, following in the footsteps of past generations of Jews who gave their lives for G-d’s name. Your deeds will be inscribed among those of all the righteous for all time, in the golden book of those who fear G-d.”

As the oppression of the Orthodox community living under the State of Israel goes on, IsraelVersusJudaism.org will continue to bring you reports on the various protests, arrests and police violence.