Anger as ultra-Orthodox demonstrators block Jerusalem entrance for 3 hours
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox youths from a fringe religious group took to the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday, causing traffic mayhem and shutting down the capital’s light rail service to protest the jailing of young seminary students for draft-dodging. The demonstrators blocked the main entrance to the capital for three hours.
The fresh disruptions sparked anger, with public figures calling on police to take a tougher stance against the protesters.
Police used force to try and disperse the protesters, some of whom clashed with angry motorists and resisted attempts by police to remove them. They also used water cannons and a foul-smelling skunk spray.
Police said they had detained 35 “extremists” who refused to clear the road. One demonstrator received medical treatment from police. Demonstrators later moved on from their original protest and shut the main entrance and exit to the city.
The main entrance to the city was shut for more than three hours despite police efforts, until the demonstrators headed a call from the head of the so-called “Jerusalem Faction” Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach to return to their yeshivas.
The disruption to residents and commuters sparked widespread anger.
“The time has come to end this disruption to the lives of Jerusalem residents. The right to demonstrate is a sacred right when it is done legally. Anyone who breaks the law, for any reason, must be dealt with harshly,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
“The police must use all means at its disposal to disperse the illegal demonstrations. I call on the police to restore normal life in the city,” he said.
Likud lawmaker and Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick also slammed the protesters.
“The demonstrations in Jerusalem now have no connection to Torah,” Glick tweeted. “It is simply hooliganism. I hope that the police will deal with the protesters as they deal with all hooligans.”
Auerbach had announced on Sunday morning that the demonstrators would return to the streets to defend the “dignity of the Torah.”
The protest began at around 3:30 p.m., when dozens of ultra-Orthodox men blocked the busy intersection of Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets.
The location, adjacent to the city’s Central Bus Station, is on several main bus routs as well as the track of the light rail, which was canceled from there to the Damascus Gate of the Old City because of the protests.
The statement from the “Committee to Save the Torah World,” which has been responsible for organizing recent demonstrations against the army draft, said that Auerbach had ordered the demonstration “to protest for the dignity of the Torah, which has been ground into dust by the incarceration of 12 prisoners of the Torah world for extended periods. Last week, the Haredi masses took to the streets to protest, and hundreds were arrested and four more prisoners of the Torah world were handed over to the military authorities.”
On Saturday night, the statement explained, committee members visited Auerbach and heard him reiterate “the requirement to continue protesting and taking to the streets.”
Auerbach said military draft “undermines all the central principles of Judaism” and called on ultra-Orthodox Jews to “go out and protest with all their strength.”
The protest follows last week’s demonstrations, in which some protesters tried to set fire to the Jerusalem draft office, according to a video clip posted online Tuesday.
The footage, posted by the Behadrei Haredim website, was filmed Monday as the protesters prevented entry or exit from the building. The grainy clip showed them trying to set two small fires in what appears to be the guardhouse at the entrance.
The army said that that the protesters had set fire to some signs and anything else they could find near the fence.
Extremist ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, protesting against the army draft, block the entrance to Jerusalem on November 26, 2017. (Flash90)
“They tried to destroy the fence. There were no injuries. There was, of course, some property damage, but nothing too serious,” an army spokesperson said, adding that “the suspects were taken by the Israel Police for further investigation.”
Last week, at least 32 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators were arrested in the salvo of demonstrations in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, and Modiin Illit.
The protests were sparked after the Jaffa Military Court on Sunday sentenced 11 ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers to jail sentences ranging from 40 to 90 days. It’s unclear why the committee organizers’ statement referred to 12 such detainees.
At issue is a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.
At the rabbi’s instruction, Auerbach’s followers refuse to show up to the draft office to apply for a deferral or exemption from the army. Followers of other rabbis do receive the exemptions and are therefore not arrested.
Earlier this year, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. The decision raises the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with dramatic political and social implications. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law.