Over 100,000 Orthodox Jews gathered Sunday afternoon, June 9, 2013 in Foley Square in lower Manhattan to protest against the Israeli government’s decision to draft their co-religionists into the army. The gathering represented an alliance of prominent Chassidic and Lithuanian yeshiva communities.
Historically, Orthodox young men have avoided serving in the Israeli army, often using their ongoing study in a religious academy as a reason for exemption. But last year, after the Israeli supreme court struck down the law granting students exemption, the Orthodox community was left without a legal means of avoiding service. The current government is preparing a plan to draft some or all of the Orthodox in the near future, making refusal to serve a crime punishable by imprisonment. The Orthodox claim that this legislation is motivated by a desire to assimilate them into secular society, rather than by actual military needs.
Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel, head of the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, New York, delivered the keynote address. “Generals in the Israeli army have all agreed that they have no use for the yeshiva students as soldiers,” he said. “The current push to draft them is politically and ideologically motivated; it is an effort to mainstream, normalize and assimilate the Orthodox Jews into secular Israeli society. And this is only the first step. One of the Israeli leaders said recently, ‘When we finish drafting the yeshiva students, we will start drafting the religious girls.’ Their goal is to uproot Torah and religion. The steady growth of the yeshiva world over the last sixty years is a thorn in their eyes. And they cannot tolerate it; they have to uproot it.”
It should be noted that even as the Israeli government passes laws to draft the Orthodox, it is cutting the army’s budget by almost one billion dollars – to the point that the army has cancelled this year’s calling up of the reservists. This indicates that they do not have the resources to train so many new soldiers, and their motivation is purely ideological.
Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, another speaker at the gathering, described the feelings of religious Jews who reached the Holy City of Jerusalem two hundred years ago and found it physically built, yet spiritually desolate. Today, he said, this is even truer under the Israeli government, which has conquered the land and built a state before the coming of the messiah, in violation of Jewish law. The sole pride of the original community of religious Jews is its world-famous Torah schools where scholars sit and pour over the ancient texts. Now the government will not let even that continue. They wish to force the scholars to leave their studies and fight for a state that they did not create and have no interest in.
Other speakers included: Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Glick; Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum, spiritual leader of Nachlas Yitzchok in Kew Gardens Hills; Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, head of the Beis Meir yeshiva in Borough Park; Rabbi Berel Dushinsky; Rabbi Nachman Stauber; and Rabbi Naftali Frankel of the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem.
Prayers were recited by Rabbi Osher Kalmanovitz, head of Mirrer Yeshiva Central Institute in Brooklyn, and Rabbi Aaron Schechter, head of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn.