100,000 Orthodox Jews oppose rule of law

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied at the entrance to Jerusalem yesterday in the most strident challenge to the rule of law in Israel's 50-year history.

Their target was the liberal Supreme Court, which has incensed them with rulings in favour of the more flexible Reform Judaism and against the wholesale exemption of yeshiva seminarists from military conscription.

"We came here to call on the Supreme Court to end its persecution of Judaism and the great rabbis," Rabbi Menachem Porush, the 83-year-old leader of the Agudat Yisrael party, told reporters.

Their campaign has put the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the spot. The ultra-Orthodox represent barely 8 per cent of the electorate, but he needs their votes to win the May elections. They backed him en masse in 1996.

Walking a tightrope , he said: "I denounce harsh, insulting statements against the Supreme Court and the justices. At the same time, I can't accept generalisations branding an entire segment of the population as marginal."

He called for dialogue and reconciliation, but there was little of either around yesterday.

In language reminiscent of the incitement that preceded the assassination of the Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin three years ago, other rabbis last week accused the Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, of anti-semitism and of being an "enemy of the Jewish people".

Placards waved at yesterday's demonstration insisted: "There is no law above the law of the Torah." Others demanded an end to "the destruction of Judaism" and to the "dictatorship" of the courts.

Responding to appeals for restraint from President Ezer Weizman and Mr Netanyahu, the rabbis restricted themselves to a pray-in, with men and women separated as they would be in an Orthodox synagogue. The nearest to a call to battle was the ritual blowing of the ram's horn.

The Orthodox rally - and a smaller one in support of the court in a park a quarter of a mile away - dispersed peacefully. The police were deployed in force to keep them apart, but in the end their main task was controlling the traffic.

Mr Netanyahu's Justice Minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, joined the secular demonstration, warning against a "threatening cloud" hanging over tolerance. Yitzhak Rabin's daughter, Dalia, noted that her father was murdered by a man who felt he did not have to obey the law. "Every Israeli citizen," she said, "should rise against any party that challenges the basis of democracy, which is the courts."