Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to Jerusalem's streets for a mass prayer vigil yesterday in protest at plans to conscript their young men for Israeli military service.
Men and boys representing the three major streams - Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardi - were united in a rare show of power against impending legislation that could change their legal status in the Jewish state.
Bearing signs with slogans such as "War on religion" and "We will not join the military", the masses took part in a prayer led by a cantor through huge loudspeakers set up at Jerusalem's main road in and out of the city.
Yaakov Biton, 28, a resident of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, said he and the rest of his peers from his theological seminary came to Jerusalem "to show that we are not afraid of the criminal sanctions. We are united".
He said: "We will win in the end. The Torah will win."
Police said "hundreds of thousands" were taking part in the demonstration, which saw major disruption of traffic.
About 3,500 officers were deployed to maintain order.
The protests were sparked by cuts in government funding to Jewish theological seminaries, or yeshivas, and a planned crackdown on young ultra-Orthodox men seeking to avoid Israel's compulsory military draft.
The cabinet last year agreed to end a practice under which ultra-Orthodox Jews were exempted from military service if they were in full-time yeshiva study.
New legislation is so far incomplete, but a parliamentary committee has approved a draft bill setting quotas for ultraOrthodox men joining the military or civilian public service, to be implemented from 2017.
The proposed law allows for sanctions against men who evade service, including imprisonment, a clause that enraged the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which said it would amount to the Jewish state sending people to jail for practising their religion.
The move to force ultraOrthodox men to serve their country is seen by many Israelis as amending the historic injustice of the exemption handed to the ultra-Orthodox in 1948, when Israel was created. Then they were a small segment of society.
Owing to their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community has since swelled to make up about 10 per cent of the country's population of just over eight million, and continues to be the fastest growing group in Israel.
The current exemption from military service is given only to ultra-Orthodox men who commit to remain in their yeshivas, and are not available for work.
This creates poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and is seen by Israel's leadership as a growing threat to the national economy.