Thousands expected for radical Israeli rabbi's funeral
JERUSALEM - Thousands of mourners took part in the funeral Sunday in Jerusalem of a radical Israeli rabbi who led opposition to attempts to force ultra-Orthodox religious students to serve in the military.
The funeral procession for Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who died aged 86, moved slowly through the city towards the cemetery in the Givat Shaul neighbourhood where large crowds were expected for his burial.
Auerbach led a relatively small but fervent group of followers, known as the Jerusalem Faction, who opposed more mainstream ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders.
He was among the strongest opponents of attempts to force ultra-Orthodox Jewish students to serve in the military like their secular counterparts.
A series of protests in recent months against such moves drew huge crowds and led to scuffles with police.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews follow a strict interpretation of religious law and account for some 10 percent of the country's eight million people.
More mainstream ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in politics and their political parties have often played a kingmaker role in forming governments.
But groups such as Auerbach's decline political participation under the belief that a Jewish state cannot be formed until the coming of the Messiah.
They refuse to serve in the military out of fear their religious lifestyle will be compromised in the largely secular setting, arguing too that religious study is just as important to Israel as military service.
Israeli law requires Jewish men to serve two years and eight months in the military on reaching the age of 18, while women must serve for 24 months.
Benny Brown, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox at the Hebrew University, said Auerbach broke off from the main ultra-Orthodox leadership in 2012 over their willingness to enable young men's to join the army and work market in limited numbers.
"The Jerusalem Faction's reaction was to that," said Brown, and caused a schism among the so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox sector, hitherto unified under one rabbi.
Auerbach was considered "young and healthy" with no immediate successor, said Brown, and it was unclear what would become of his movement.