JERUSALEM (JTA) — Thousands of haredi Orthodox men have gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem as part of a mass prayer rally and protest against a bill that would require yeshiva students to serve in the military.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take part in the protest, dubbed the “million man protest,” which was set to begin at 4 p.m. If turnout is as expected, it will be among the largest gatherings in Israel’s history, according to Israeli reports.
More than 3,500 police and security personnel were at the site of the demonstration to protect the protestors. The main entrance to Jerusalem closed to all traffic at 1 p.m., and the Jerusalem Central Bus Station closed at 2:30 p.m.
Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, made up mostly of religious Zionist members, called on his party members to stay away from the rally.
“You won’t find any mention of criminal sanctions in the bill. Those who shout that they need to speak out, know that no yeshiva student will be sent to jail. The bill is fair. Military service is not an edict, it’s a mitzvah,” Bennett said Saturday night.
Under the proposed military draft law being prepared by the Shaked Committee, haredi men would be criminally charged for evading the draft, but the penalties would not go into effect until 2017. In addition, draft orders for haredi men up to age 26 will not go into effect until up to a year after the law is implemented. The final proposal of the bill is likely to be brought before the Knesset plenum this month.
The Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service indefinitely, was invalidated by the Supreme Court in February 2012 and expired in August that year. Haredi yeshiva students since then have had their drafts deferred.
Religious Zionist leader Rabbi Haim Druckman on Saturday night called on his community to stay away from the rally. Another rabbinic leader of the movement, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, head of the Ramat Gan yeshiva, on Sunday changed his mind regarding participation in the rally, saying that leaders of the movement would not attend the rally, despite announcing last week that they would. The reason reportedly was expressions of disrespect of the national religious movement by the haredi Orthodox community, according to Israel National News, a Religious Zionist news service.
The Belz Hasidic sect has threatened to leave Israel en mass if the law is passed.