JERUSALEM -- Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied in Jerusalem on Sunday to protest emerging legislation that could end their sweeping exemption from military service.
The country's capital was paralyzed as access to Jerusalem was blocked. Government offices, schools and courthouses closed early, and public transportation was halted to accommodate the mass prayer called by rabbinical leaders.
Under heavy police protection, black hats bobbed as the crowd of demonstrators swayed in prayer or danced to express their opposition to a military draft that many decried as a "war against religion."
In an unusual move, religious women were encouraged to attend the protest, standing separately from the men.
For decades, Israel's ultra-Orthodox have been effectively exempt from military service. Those dedicating their life to Jewish scholarship in religious schools called yeshivas could defer indefinitely their being drafted.
But the law allowing this arrangement expired in 2012 after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, and efforts to replace it with new legislation have foundered until recently.
Under the new bill, which could be finalized in the coming weeks, the number of yeshiva students enrolling in military or other service would gradually increase in coming years, restricting exemptions to outstanding scholars only.
Some proponents maintain this will reduce inequality and offer a gateway for more ultra-Orthodox to join Israel's mainstream workforce. But many among the ultra-Orthodox reject the government's plan as a political war against their traditional way of life.