Israel Bill to End Military Exemptions for Orthodox Jews; Hundreds of Thousands Protest in Jerusalem

Between 250,000 to 400,000 Orthodox Jews held a mass protest in Jerusalem on Sunday against a controversial bill aiming to end the community's military exemptions, meaning Jewish men and women would be called up for military service when they turn 18.

Reuters reported on Sunday that that "ultra-Orthodox" Jewish leaders called on men, women and children to attend the mass protests against the bill, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks and end the exemptions which have traditionally been held since the country's foundation.

Many of those attending the protest apparently issued a plea to God to stop the bill from becoming law, reports said, with Haredim arguing that the study of Jewish holy scriptures is essential to their way of life, and military service would get in the way of that tradition.

"We want to show that we are united and we want to stop a bad thing that they are trying to force us into. The army is not our way of life. It is not run by our rabbis," said 18-year-old Mordechai Seltzer.

"They don't need us in the army. This is a cultural show of force. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing very fast and the other part of the country is worried. They want to get us into their army. Zionism is not about going into the army," added 19-year-old Maurice, a seminary student from New York.

The Washington Post reported that the two-hour protest began with a mass prayer service, with some of the Haredi protesters, wearing traditional black hats and long black jackets, carrying signs in Hebrew and English criticizing the government for trying to suppress their religious beliefs. Some of the leaders of the rally called on the Haredi to resist all attempts of the law's enforcement, and continue refusing to serve in the army.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressured from the country's cabinet to pass reforms that are aimed at "sharing the burden," with a parliamentary committee working on the new bill for months.

Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a professor at Hebrew University, noted that for believers, study of the holy texts is a responsibility that comes before all else.

"They say the world and the Jewish people are saved because they study the scriptures," Ben-Yehuda explained.

Haredim make up 10 percent of the population in Israel, TIME reported, and are a fast-growing albeit poor social group, with many of the men unemployed and living off state benefits.