Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered for a mass prayer in Jerusalem on March 2 in protest at a bill that would cut their community's military exemptions.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders had called on their men, women and children to attend the protest against new legislation ending wholesale army exemptions granted to seminary students, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks and would end a tradition upheld since Israel's foundation.
2 Mar 2014. JERUSALEM, Israel. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
The issue that drew huge crowds to the protest is at the heart of an emotional national debate.
Most Israeli Jewish men and women are called up for military service when they turn 18, but most ultra-Orthodox Jews, or "Haredim", a Hebrew term meaning 'those who tremble before God', are excused from army service.
2 Mar 2014. JERUSALEM, Israel. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Police said hundreds of thousands took part in the prayer. Israeli media estimated that between 250,000 to 400,000 attended.
The demonstration paralysed parts of Jerusalem, blocked the main entrance to the city and halted public transport as the streets around swelled with streams of men in black hats and coats, the traditional Haredi garb.
Rabbis wailed prayers over loudspeakers as the standing crowds swayed back and forth, repeating a plea to God to stop the law from being passed.
2 Mar 2014. JERUSALEM, Israel. REUTERS/Nir Elias
Haredim make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million people. They are a fast-growing and relatively poor social group. Most Haredi men are unemployed and live off state benefits, donations and their wives' often low wages.
The ultra-Orthodox community is resented by many Israelis who accuse the Haredim of burdening the economy and sponging off the state while avoiding the duties that bind others.
4 Jul 2012. JERUSALEM, Israel. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Haredim say the study of holy scriptures is a foundation of Jewish life, that scholars have a right to devote themselves full time to the tradition, and that army service would deny them fulfillment of that religious edict.