JERUSALEM — Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews blocked highways across Israel on 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.