Ultra-orthodox Jews protest
Jerusalem - Around 100 000 ultra-Orthodox Jews on Thursday rallied in Jerusalem, police said, in a show of mass defiance over a school integration ruling by Israel's highest court.
The streets were flooded with men in trademark black, wide-brimmed hats and lined with police as the rally stretched several blocks and paralysed traffic in and around the heart of the Holy City.
A similar protest in Bnei Brak near the seaside city of Tel Aviv earlier drew about 20 000 people, according to police.
Thousands of police were put on high alert on Thursday ahead of the ultra-Orthodox protests over a supreme court ruling to jail a group of parents of European origin, or Ashkenazis, for refusing to send their daughters to a school with Jewish girls of Middle Eastern descent, known as Sephardis.
Although the ruling effectively pits the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazis against the Sephardis, the two communities came together for a mass protest against what they see as the intolerable intervention of the secular state in their religious affairs.
In Jerusalem, protesters massed in a celebratory atmosphere near the western entrance to the city, the vast majority of men wearing the traditional black suits and hats of the ultra-Orthodox.
As the defiant parents arrived to address the throng, the fathers, dressed in their holiday finery, were swept up onto the shoulders of supporters as the crowd broke into spontaneous dancing.Prisoners of Immanuel
Some held banners proclaiming "The Torah Rules!" referring to the supremacy of biblical law over the secular justice system.
Others carried placards reading "The Prisoners of Immanuel are representatives of Israel," in reference to the defiant parents, all of whom come from the Jewish settlement of Immanuel in the occupied West Bank.
The parents and ultra-Orthodox leaders addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage made out of two lorries straddling a road.
The parents, who represent more than 40 families, were on Thursday to begin a two-week jail sentence for contempt of court after their detention was delayed from midday (09:00 GMT) until 14:00 to allow the protests to play out peacefully.
Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco said the parents were under police escort but had thus far been unable to reach the police station, where the protesters had converged.
The incident began when the supreme court intervened in a dispute at an ultra-Orthodox school in the Immanuel settlement, where parents from the strictly observant Slonim Hassidic sect of Ashkenazi Jewry refused to let their girls go to school with girls of Sephardi descent.
The court had given the parents until Wednesday to send their children back to school or face jail for contempt of court. The parents refused.
The dispute was described by the liberal Haaretz daily as "the most dramatic state-religion clash to break out here," and the protests were the largest ultra-Orthodox demonstration seen in the city in a decade.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appealed for calm, and President Shimon Peres earlier met deputy education minister Meir Porush, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in an unsuccessful bid to reach a compromise.
The Slonim parents say their objections are not racist but are based on differences in religious observance between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions.
There are about 1 300 Slonim families in Israel, most living in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, as well as several dozen families in Immanuel and Kiryat Gat southwest of Jerusalem.
The sect was established in 1858 in a town of the same name in what is now Belarus.
In Israel, the Slonim subdivide into two groups which both follow different rabbis - the Slanim, or "blacks", who revere a rabbi with a black beard, and the Slonim, or "whites," after their white-bearded rabbi.