A day before the haredi "million man march" called to protest the new drafting of yeshiva students, I sat in my synagogue in Jerusalem's German Colony as Rabbi Benny Lau got up to speak. This rabbi is no stranger to the haredi world; he is the nephew of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, and cousin to the present Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau. But the congregation was not surprised to hear him lash out with vehemence against the planned protest. Calling it a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, he declared that those who participated were ingrates to a state that had educated their children, provided subsidized medical care to their families, given them discounts on municipal taxes and protected them from their enemies.
When the march took place with a fraction of the numbers predicted, I wondered if my rabbi's sentiment might not actually have been shared by many inside the hare-di world as well.
Even before the march, Knesset Member Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, which represents Sephardic haredim, said, "This sort of thing will only help the enemies of Torah." Similarly, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party was quoted on the haredi website Ki-kar Shabbat as saying that "the only thing that will increase [MK Yair Lapid's] number of seats in the Knesset is this demonstration. In the next election, he will show a million people [demonstrating against the bill] and say: 'I was the only one who fought against them."
As predicted, the muscle-flexing did haredim little good. Public backlash was swift, with the Knesset easily passing the law haredim feared most, criminalizing draft avoidance and potentially putting yeshiva students who ignore draft notices behind bars. Lapid, who sponsored the law, crowed afterwards: "A 65-year-old historic distortion has been rectified and Zionism is back."
Rather than responding with greater fury, the protest movement seemed to run out of steam. In fact, the next protest was held in Manhattan. "It's no wonder they are traveling abroad to influence others, since, sadly, at home no one is willing to listen to what we have to say," MK Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Moses from United Torah Judaism Party reportedly said.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that the most profound effect of these demonstrations has been on haredi society itself, as a growing number of dissenting religious voices have begun speaking up in a way that would have been unprecedented even a few years ago.