JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews blocked the main entrance to Jerusalem on Thursday, bringing traffic to a grinding halt during the evening commute to protest the arrest of members of their community for refusing to register for the military draft.
Israel has compulsory military service for most Jewish men, but the ultra-Orthodox, whose political parties enjoy an outsized role in the country’s coalition politics, have secured exemptions. Most ultra-Orthodox men have the option of receiving repeated deferrals, as long as they register with the military.
But the protesters refuse to even register. “We will die and not enlist,” they chanted Thursday.
It was the first such protest since the death last month of the group’s leader, Shmuel Auerbach. On his orders over the past year, thousands of men in black hats and side-locks would mob intersections, stopping traffic and scuffling with the public and police.
The military exemptions have angered many secular and mainstream Jews, whose children are drafted after high school.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners are currently arguing about whether to extend the draft exemptions as part of a budget debate. A key non-religious party has threatened to bolt the coalition if the budget is not passed soon.
Draft privileges go back to when Israel’s founders granted exemptions to a few hundred gifted students to help rebuild the schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust. But the numbers have ballooned dramatically since then.