JERUSALEM -- With prayers and piety, Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews protested yesterday against the country's secular Supreme Court and its involvement in matters they claim are governed solely by God's law.
The crowds of black-coated men, estimated by police at 250,000, clogged several streets at the entrance to Jerusalem. Others stood on rooftops and balconies. Rabbis who organized the protest led a recitation of Psalms that echoed from loudspeakers as the protesters read from small, leather-bound prayer books and rocked in devotion.
Voices reading from a printed leaflet rose in a chant: "Our Father, our King, obliterate the designs of those who plot against us."
Orthodox women, many pushing strollers, gathered a short distance from the men in the religious practice of keeping the sexes separate.
Down the street, an estimated 50,000 counter-protesters participated in a rally to support Israel's high court and the democratic rule of law. These demonstrators -- many thumping drums and holding placards -- turned out to protest what they view as the increasing influence of the ultra-religious in their lives.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis organized the prayer rally to protest recent Supreme Court rulings that have upheld the opening of stores on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath; challenged military deferments for religious youths who study the Bible full time; and broken the ultra-Orthodox's dominance of local religious councils. Some rabbis last week referred to the Supreme Court as "empty-headed and wanton evildoers."
"The religious people are being maligned in this country," said Leandra Hainovitz, an Orthodox Jew who has lived in Jerusalem since 1978. "What works them up is when nonreligious people interfere in their matters. If Jews can't live as Jews in this country, then where can they live?"
More than 1,500 police were deployed on the streets out of concern that the two sides would clash. But except for the occasional, rowdy debate between clusters of secular and religious youths, the demonstrations proceeded peacefully.
The twin protests reflected the rift in Israeli society over the role religion should play in the Jewish state. The banners and signs in the two crowds characterized the essence of the conflict. The symbols they employed underscored their differences.
"Stop hounding the religious," read one poster held aloft by an Orthodox student in black hat and coat. "There is no law but the Torah," said another poster in the crowd.
During the religious rally, the sound of a ram's horn preceded the reading of the Psalms. In the Bible, the blowing of the "shofar" marked the start of the new year, summoned the Israelites to war and called on sinners to repent.
At the pro-court rally, a placard featured pictures of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party in Israel. "Find the Difference," read the caption.
A sticker worn by many in this crowd said "SHAS Forbid," a reference to the orthodox religious party of the same name and a play on the saying, "God forbid."
The counter-rally attracted believers and nonbelievers alike. Some wore knitted skullcaps in the practice of religious Jews; others sported midriff tops and nose rings.
"I'm here to support the Supreme Court and justice over all," said David Galimidi, 49, who lives in a kibbutz near the northern coastal city of Netanya. "There should be a separation of church and state. I don't believe in god, but I'm a Jew."
A group of young people marched to the beat of a drum and sang a peace song. Vendors sold cotton candy and sodas. The Israeli flag fluttered above the crowd. And the crowd sang Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva" (Hope), as the pro-court rally ended.
Tzvika Golombeck, a 24-year-old student who described himself as a secular Israeli, respects the desire of the religious to live according to the laws of the Bible. But he doesn't want them to impose their lifestyle on him.
"If we want to go out on Saturday, if we want to eat nonkosher food, let us," he said. "It's about time we, the majority, said, 'Stop.' "
Although the protesters focused on the role of the Supreme Court, the rallies were held during a politically sensitive time in Israel. Elections are slated for May 17, and candidates for prime minister are already campaigning.
The religious parties are an integral part of the government coalitions that rule here. In return for their votes, the religious and Orthodox parties expect financial and political support for their concerns, whether it's new housing for religious families or military deferments for religious students.
Standing among thousands of bearded religious men, Moti Rosenwasser noted the strength of the crowd.
"It's a demonstration of power, my power," said the 49-year-old factory owner who served in the Israeli army as a young man. "Let's not forget it's an election year, that's what makes it especially important for each contingent to come out. Everybody has a flag to raise. If you recognize my power, the politicians also recognize my power."
Pub Date: 2/15/99