A bus of black hats, whispered prayers and gender-segregated seating.
A mass of haredi Orthodox men — and some women — walking slowly together, packing the streets of northern Jerusalem.
Hundreds of thousands of voices wailing prayers of penitence, portraying a recent event as a tragedy beyond measure — and vowing to rededicate themselves to their way of life.
Since last spring, mass gatherings of haredi Israelis in Jerusalem have punctuated Israel’s news cycle. Last May, thousands of haredi men and women packed the Western Wall Plaza in a show of force against a ruling to allow Women of the Wall to pray there undisturbed. In October, some 800,000 people — 10 percent of the country — turned out for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic sage.
And on Sunday, 300,000 haredi Israelis filled Jerusalem’s streets, shutting down its roads and transit, to protest the advancement of a bill that would require them to join Israel’s mandatory military conscription in three years.
Each of these gatherings was different — the Western Wall protest was much smaller and grew violent, while today’s was large and peaceful; the funeral wasn’t a protest at all.
But all the gatherings shared key characteristics:
They all carried a feeling of dire urgency. Be it the death of a leader, the purported misuse of a holy space or the endangering of a core communal privilege, the haredim who showed up acted as if what was happening threatened not just the haredi lifestyle but the core of Jewish tradition.
They all centered on prayer. Both the funeral and today’s conscription protest included saying psalms and penitential prayers usually reserved for the High Holidays. And while a faction of the Western Wall protesters acted violently, the vast majority prayed quietly or as a group. In fact, months ago leading haredi Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman advocated prayer over protest to fight the conscription law.
They all alluded to Jewish history. No matter the cause, the attendees portrayed themselves as another iteration of previous Jewish tragedy. Signs today compared the conscription law to slavery in Egypt, the Purim story (before the happy ending) or even the Holocaust. A few Western Wall protesters also had no problem calling Women of the Wall “Nazis.” And several eulogizers at the funeral compared Yosef’s death to the prophet Elijah’s.
They all had the endorsement of leading haredi rabbis. Leading rabbis from several haredi sects endorsed the Western Wall and conscription protests — turning out their followers in large numbers. All stripes of the haredi community paid tribute to Yosef’s memory. Several protesters at today’s demonstration said they came because their grand rabbis told them to.
Finally, none of the predictions made at these gatherings are likely to happen. Protesters at the Western Wall said they would not allow Women of the Wall to pray in peace; now, the group has the legal right to pray at the site and encounters minimal protest at its monthly gatherings. After the Yosef funeral, expert observers predicted a rift in the rabbi’s Shas political party that has yet to break open. And despite the haredi protestations today, the conscription law is expected to pass.
Haredim can exercise significant communal solidarity, and turning out large numbers for protests is one of their principal strengths. It’s likely due to the strength of their potential activism that the conscription bill is relatively cautious — not enforcing the haredi draft until 2017. Whatever happens, today’s protest demonstrated that while they may not be able to change a law, they can shut down Israel’s largest city for half a day.