JERUSALEM – Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews blocked highways across Israel Thursday to protest attempts to draft them into the army, clashing with club-wielding police who aimed water cannons and fired stun grenades at large crowds of black-garbed men.
The violent protests came just days after a Supreme Court ruling ordered funding halted to ultra-Orthodox seminaries whose students dodge the draft and laid bare one of the deepest rifts in Israeli society, highlighting the fundamental disagreements between its secular majority and a devout minority over the character of the Jewish state.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have for years been exempt from military service, which is compulsory for other Jewish Israelis. The arrangement has caused widespread resentment and featured prominently in last year's election, after which the ultra-Orthodox parties lost ground and found themselves outside the governing coalition.
The new government immediately began pushing a bill that will alter the existing system to gradually reduce the number of exemptions and require all to register for service. While it awaits parliamentary approval, this week's court ruling – followed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid's freezing of the funds – marked the first concrete sanction against draft dodgers and sparked angry reactions from ultra-Orthodox leaders who claim the military will expose their youth to secularism and undermine their devout lifestyle.
The opposition spilled into the streets Thursday in the form of about a half-dozen simultaneous demonstrations that snarled traffic for several hours.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 400 activists tried to block the entrance to Jerusalem, while demonstrators hurled stones at police and set a patrol car on fire in the southern city of Ashdod. Elsewhere, about 2,000 protesters blocked a major highway in central Israel.
Police on horses beat back demonstrators with clubs and used stun grenades to clear the roads. Two policemen were wounded and 35 protesters were arrested, Rosenfeld said.
The issue of army service is at the core of a cultural war over the place of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to skip compulsory military service to pursue their religious studies. Older men often avoid the workforce and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.
The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and maintaining a pious way of life that has kept the Jewish people alive through centuries of persecution.
Leaders of the community, which in Hebrew is known as "Haredim," or those who fear God, say their followers would rather sit in jail than join the military. They charge their ancient brand of Judaism is under siege and warn of an uprising if parliament approves the draft plan.
Yair Sheleg, an expert on the Israeli religious sector at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said Thursday's outburst reflected a genuine rage over the proposed plan but also a show of strength to try to limit its impact.
"They understand that things can't go on the way they have and they will have to make some concessions to the state, but they are hoping to limit the damage," he said. "For the first time, they are starting to really be affected."
Not all the ultra-Orthodox are vehemently opposed to enlistment and inclusion in Israeli society. Due to its high birthrate and the relatively low participation in the workforce, the ultra-Orthodox community suffers from high unemployment and poverty.
Voices have begun to emerge criticizing the ultra-Orthodox education system, which teaches students about Judaism but very little math, English or science. More than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox and government statistics project that if these trends continue, the ultra-Orthodox could make up 15 percent of the country's population by 2025.
The tide has already begun to turn. In 2011, for instance, 55 percent of ultra-Orthodox women and 45 percent of the men held jobs, up from 48 percent and 33 percent respectively nine years earlier, according to Israel's central bank and its central bureau of statistics. The numbers, while still far below the national average of around 80 percent, show the community is far from the homogenous mass viewed by outsiders.