JERUSALEM — Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied Sunday in Jerusalem, blocking roads and paralyzing the city in a show of force against plans to require them to serve in the military.
The widespread opposition to the Israeli draft poses a challenge to the country, which is grappling with a cultural war over the place of the ultra-Orthodox in society.
Army service is at the core of that struggle. Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to avoid military service, compulsory for most Jewish men, to pursue religious studies. Older men often don't work 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 by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept Jewish culture alive through centuries of persecution.
But the exemption has enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share. The issue featured prominently in this past year's election, which led to the establishment of a center-right government that has been pushing for reforms that will require ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army. Parliament is expected to vote on the conscription bill this month.
Ofer Shelah and his Yesh Atid party, which stands behind the push to draft the ultra-Orthodox, say the integration of 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 such as 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 on Sunday 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, including women and young children, attended.
The city began grinding to a halt hours before the rally began. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police officers were deployed for the rally, and 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.
According to the draft bill up for a vote in 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.