03/03/2014, 00.00
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against military service, see it as "an attack on Torah"

by Joshua Lapide
At least 500,000 people - adults, youth and children - took over Jerusalem for a few hours. According to the Haredim, military service stops them from studying the Bible and undermines the moral education of their youth. Secular Israelis accuse them of being "parasites" because they live off state subsidies.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) invaded central Jerusalem yesterday to oppose a draft bill that would conscript more of their young into the Israeli Defence Forces and impose fines and arrest on draft dodgers. The law would come into effect by mid-2017.

The Haredim refuse military service because it would "stop us practising the Torah as we should," lead to the "mingling of the sexes," endanger our "our religious beliefs", and expose young people "to temptations".

Yesterday's demonstration was relatively peaceful. At least 500,000 people gathered for the event, including rabbis, youth, adults and families with many children. There were moments of prayer, psalm reading and profession of the Jewish faith, the 'Shema Israel'.

One resolution called on the government not to pass a law "that would harm those studying Torah and force them to leave Torah study to the point of throwing them into jail, which is an uprooting of the Torah and sacrilege against Heaven."

The Haredim have been exempt from military service since 1948, when the State of Israel was founded. At that time, there were only 400 students in religious schools (yeshivas). But thanks to a high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox have now become 10 per cent of the Israeli population.

Most men devote themselves to the study of the Bible, and are subsidised by the state and private donations.

Weighing heavily on the nation's budget and exempt from military service, the ultra-Orthodox are envied and criticised by secular Israelis, who are forced to perform three years of compulsory stops and pay taxes. For this reason, they are often described as "parasites".

Until recently, ultra-Orthodox parties were a necessary feature in government coalitions despite their small number of lawmakers. This enabled them to secure government aid for their communities.

However, for the first time no ultra-Orthodox party joined the government after last year's elections.

Some other parties are also pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take measures to ensure that the Haredim share the country's "social burden".

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