Throngs of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, women and children crowded the entrance to Jerusalem on Sunday for a mass prayer rally to protest a proposed law that would force members of their community to be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, in line with other Israeli citizens.

The demonstration brought Israel’s capital to a standstill as roads were closed and 3,500 security personnel were deployed to ensure order, according to Israel Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Israeli media reported that “hundreds of thousands” had gathered, though the police spokesman appeared to – at least initially – dispute that estimate, tweeting that there were “tens of thousands”:

Ultra-Orthodox-Rally-JerusalemCommunity leaders said that those gathered would recite Psalms and other prayers and that they had called on participants to refrain from violence, in contrast with previous rallies.

Under the Israeli government proposal, those who evade the draft could face criminal sanctions. To now, ultra-Orthodox men have enjoyed a military exemption, with many in the community collecting government welfare benefits, a sore point among other Israelis who have expressed frustration that the burden of both defending the country and economically supporting it falls on their shoulders.

“The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept Jewish culture alive through centuries of persecution,” the Associated Press explained.

The Times of Israel reported, “Many are wearing sackcloth, symbolizing mourning for the creation of the law, following decades during which the ultra-Orthodox were able to claim an exemption from army service.”

Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein warned the societal rift could lead to a “civil war.”

“The present situation is that there is record tension between the segments of society and I am concerned for the unity of the nation,” Edelstein said in Israel’s parliament.

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