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Ezriel Yudkowsky

Could the Jewish State really brand yeshivah students as criminals, for the “offense” of staying at their shtenders? When a virulent Knesset coalition threatened to change the draft law protecting yeshivah students, Yossi Deitsch was tasked with arranging the largest chareidi demonstration of the decade

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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PEACEFUL PROTEST As the last echoes of their davening faded into the Jerusalem air, the intensity gave way to euphoria, and the crowd began singing and dancing. “The police were shocked at how peaceful it was. No rock-throwing, no name-calling, no garbage-burning. They hadn’t believed that we could achieve such a degree of discipline” (Photos: Flash90)

Yossi Deitsch is used to pulling strings to make big things happen. As a leading UTJ politician and protégé of longtime MK Meir Porush, the well-connected Slonimer chassid is the type of person who can arrange for thousands of Bais Yaakov girls to arrive at the Kosel precisely in time to offset the monthly media spectacle of the Women of the Wall, or to kick-start the quiet but effective job-training programs of the Kemach organization. But when Israel’s Moetzes Gedolei haTorah ordered him to arrange a “million-man march” in less than a week, he honestly doubted whether he could pull it off. 

The march was sparked in February of 2014, when a particularly bitter alliance between MKs Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett threatened to criminalize all chareidim who avoid the draft in order to continue learning in yeshivah. Before then, a long-standing arrangement provided for yeshivah students to avoid the draft — as long as they met certain protocol — in a grudging truce with the chareidi community. But the Nineteenth Knesset was propelled by a virulent strain of anti-chareidi sentiment, and the previous arrangement was at real risk of being overturned. 

“The gedolim couldn’t remain silent,” remembers Deitsch, who currently serves as deputy mayor of Jerusalem. “They decided to gather a critical mass of Jews to protest the law, and the sentiment behind it. Here in Eretz Yisrael — the homeland so many generations of Jews had dreamed of — would a bochur really have to decide between abandoning his Torah learning or being branded a criminal?” 

Deitsch quickly assembled a team of experienced allies: Rav Chanoch Ziebert, mayor of Bnei Brak; Menachem Shapira, his deputy; and Chaim Biton, secretary of Shas. They had a brachah from the Moetzes and a passion for the message. But they had very little time, and very much to do. 

FIRST, THEY NEEDED TO SELECT A VENUE. “We knew this would be big,” he says. “It had to be an easy and convenient spot for masses of people.” They chose the area just past the Chords Bridge, where Rechov Yaffo meets Rechov Sarei Yisrael, with the option of spillover down toward Malchei Yisrael Street in upper Geulah. 

Deitsch and Zeibert contacted Egged and other bus companies to arrange busing from all over the country. Hundreds of buses were hired. Then the team had to arrange parking spots for those buses, and an organized system so passengers could find their buses easily for the trips back home after the rally. As more and more people expressed interest in coming, the reserved parking areas grew: along the length of Rechov Herzl and Yirmiyahu, the Begin highway, Zalman Shazar, down toward the Knesset and Supreme Court. 

The message of this demonstration was too important to be left in the hands of bored kids looking for fun. Deitsch did not invite any younger children to attend. He coordinated with the older grades of the chedarim and the high schools. “If parents wanted to bring small children, that was their private decisions,” he said. This was an event for adults — a serious ideological statement — but, Deitsch acknowledges, “Any child who saw it would remember it forever.” 

In the passionate Middle East, and in the State of Israel in particular, demonstrations can get violent and ugly all too quickly. The police smelled trouble, and in their meetings with Deitsch, they told him they planned to have thousands of policemen at the scene. 

“We were worried about discipline,” Deitsch admits. “We knew that people would come, but we wanted to preserve the message and were scared that a few wild kids could lose control and ruin the whole thing. The media was waiting for that. Six hundred thousand people could come and daven without a hint of violence, and the media could focus on the couple of wild kids. So we had to plan for that too.” 

Deitsch presented the police force with a plan of his own: “We told the police to monitor the transportation and traffic issues, but to leave the discipline to us. And we drafted a force of ‘sadranim’ — ushers — drawn from the chareidi world. The sadranim were yeshivah bochurim with special vests and special training from us, to make sure that there was no chillul Sheim Shamayim.” 

ON SUNDAY MORNING, March 2, Deitsch woke up early. At 7 a.m., he was on site at Rechov Zalman Shazar, getting ready for an event that had barely been a blip just a week before. 

He spent those early hours addressing the media — many of which predicted that the city would soon be overtaken by violent, uncontrollable masses of black; briefing the hundreds of sadranim and assigning them their positions; directing the signage — posters and banners were to be distributed and displayed prominently — and monitoring installation of the sound system. 

By 2 p.m., the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway had been closed from the Latrun area to Jerusalem. The Central Bus Station was closed, and many of the internal city bus lines had ceased operation. The city was quiet, tense. Waiting. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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