Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women rallied on Water Street in lower Manhattan on Sunday to protest the Israeli Parliament’s proposal to draft Haredi men into the Israeli army.
The demonstrators gathered in an area the length of 10 city blocks, between Broad Street and Fulton Street. The men, some of them holding young children, stood packed behind police barricades. Upwards of 50,000 people were in attendance, according to organizers. Most of the men wore black fedoras and black coats and pants. Some also wore prayer shawls.
The protests come upon the heels of similar demonstrations in Jerusalem, which drew more than 300,000 people and blocked traffic for hours.
The police presence in New York was heavy, and law enforcement officers patrolled every block surrounding the demonstration.
Prominent rabbis from the New York area, some of them audibly weeping during prayer, spoke over loud speakers in mostly Yiddish and Hebrew. The rally began with the recitation of “mincha,” the afternoon prayer, during which worshipers faced east towards Jerusalem. Participants described the event as a “prayer rally” rather than a demonstration.
The Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, as they are more widely known in the United States, are strict followers of Jewish law who spend a significant part of their life studying the Torah in academies called yeshivas. They have long been exempt from the Israeli military on religious grounds. Most of the men don’t hold jobs, but rather live off subsidies to support their religious study. This costs the Israeli economy millions of dollars and has built resentment from other sectors of Israeli society that do perform military service. The Haredim argue that while they don’t serve, they are supporting Israeli society by upholding Jewish tradition.
At the protests on Sunday, men and women stood in separate sections of the designated protest area, as is customary for Jewish orthodox religious gatherings.
Far fewer women turned out than men. The women wore conservative skirts, tights, and jackets and held prayer books or sheets of paper.
Miriam Welcher, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman from New York came to show her support for Israeli Haredim.
“Those who learn the holy Torah are not trying to avoid the military but are showing their strength through prayer and learning. In that respect we’re also strengthening the nation,” said Welcher.
Pesach Charney from Jewish radio station Jroot Radio came out to the prayer rally in solidarity.
“A lot of our listeners are upset. A lot of our Orthodox Jewish listeners.”
Around 4 p.m., the prayers ended and people swiftly made their way to buses, cars, and subways. Neighborhood Starbucks were filled with men in ultra-Orthodox clothing sitting and chatting, or getting a drink with their family.
On Wednesday, March 12, three days after the rally, the Knesset officially cut the Israeli army exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews, meaning that Haredim will be drafted into the army.
The law was passed 65-to-1, and provides the compromise of allowing Haredim a choice between civilian national service and military service. It also allows Yeshiva students to defer past the age of 18.