Thousands of haredi Jews, including members of both rival factions of the Satmar chasidic sect, crowded into Foley Square in Lower Manhattan Sunday to protest Israel's plan to include the ultra-Orthodox in the army draft.
The protesters carried signs reading "The Israei Draft Law is an attack on religious freedom" and "Orthodox Jews willproudly go to jail rather than serve in the Israeli army."
The rally shows a tactical shift by haredi Jews toward embacing calls for religious freedom in Israel, or at least their version of it.
Last month a Knesset committee advanced a bill requiring 18-year-old haredi Orthodox men and women to register for military service, with a deferral of up to three years.
Under the bill submitted by the Peri Committee, also known as the Knesset Committee for Promoting Equal Share of the Burden, those who do not register for the draft could be jailed.
Some 1,800 yeshiva scholars would be exempt from service each year. Some 8,000 haredi Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted each year.
The bill also calls for an increase in the number of months of army service for national-religious hesder yeshivas, from the current 16 months to 24 months, by 2016.
The Peri Committee was set up last year and charged with integrating the haredi Orthodox community into Israel’s military after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in February 2012 that the Tal Law, which had allowed haredi men to defer army service, was unconstitutional.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Modern Orthodox rabbis, denounced the gathering.
"It is an insult to the memory of the Satmar Rov, of blessed memory, that his disciples a generation later would take to the streets to publicly aid the many enemies who stand ready to destroy, God forbid, the Jewish State - and all Jews," said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council's president.
"For all his well-known opposition to a secular state, he always put the protection of Jewish lives first."
Estimates of the crowd in various media reports ranged from 5,000 to 10,000.
Posters promoting the event in haredi neighborhoods used inflammatory language, Haaretz reported, showing haredi soldiers surrounded by fire. "The evil rulers in the Holy Land want to incite and seduce young men and teenagers to acquiesce to idol worship and to participate in the impure army," the posters in Hebrew and Yiddish.
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