JERUSALEM -- Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protested across Israel on Thursday against the government's plans to draft them into the military.
Carrying signs and chanting slogans pledging to resist enlistment, the demonstrators shut down major traffic arteries, set fire to garbage dumpsters and even a police vehicle, as police attempted to contain them with water cannons and mounted troops.
More than a dozen demonstrators were arrested, according to media reports.
The demonstrations followed a Supreme Court ruling this week banning government funding of several thousand students who have failed to comply with draft notices issued by the army.
In response, Finance Minister Yair Lapid suspended all funding to the students' yeshivas, or religious schools.
The court decision enraged ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians. “The Supreme Court has declared war against us. We will fight back,” opposition lawmaker Moshe Gafni told Israeli media.
Israel’s military service law states all Israeli citizens, including women, are to be drafted at age 18. In practice, the state exempts many from service, most notably ultra-Orthodox Jews and the country’s large Arab minority, both of whom may volunteer for service.
About 8,000 ultra-Orthodox youths come of draft age every year, but the overwhelming majority do not enlist. In Ashdod, hundreds protested Thursday the arrest of a high-school yeshiva student. The youth, who did not report after receiving a draft notice, was picked up after a routine traffic inspection of his papers.
The decades-long exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews was widely regarded as unfair, as well as an obstacle to their eventual integration into the workforce.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the law that regulated their exemption. Since then, efforts to enact legislation on enlistment of yeshiva students have floundered.
The loaded political issue has dictated the makeup of Israel’s current government, which set it as a top legislative priority after the elections. For the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox political parties remained in the opposition.
This week’s court ruling was taken by some observers to suggest it was losing patience with the government for not yet having passed a new bill to replace the overturned law. Members of the parliamentary committee forging the legislation report it is nearing the final stages of work.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.