© Ohad Zwigenberg/AP
Israeli women’s rights activists dressed as characters in the popular television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, Thursday.

TEL AVIV — Israel’s protest movement, having forced the government to pause its attempt to overhaul the national judiciary system, pivoted to other targets in demonstrations across the country Thursday, including the exemption from military service and other special privileges long granted to the growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Thousands marched for a “Day of Disruption to Demand Equality” focused on the unequal burdens of citizenship and status of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim as they are known in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox citizens are largely shielded from the country’s mandatory draft and educational standards and their families benefit from heavy public subsidies that allow boys and men to devote years to religious study instead of working and paying taxes in the mainstream economy.

Demonstrators blocked roads, lined bridges and picketed the homes of cabinet members. While many still chanted against the judicial overhaul, which some ministers are seeking to revive, most focused on other concerns, including spiking inflation and rising crime.

One man marching in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak wore a slogan that translated as “My son is willing to die on his tank; your son will not die studying Torah.”

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In both Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak, veterans carried empty combat stretchers to illustrate their complaints that the Haredim are not bearing their fair share.

“They are not carrying with us, they are not part of society,” said Dafna Goldenberg, 58, who served in a tank unit in the 1980s, is married to a former commando and has three sons in the military. “I’m deeply worried that it will all collapse.”

During several encounters in front of a yeshiva school, she tried to make that argument to ultra-Orthodox residents who came to watch the protests.

“They looked at the sky and said ‘God will carry the stretcher. God will protect us and we are protecting you by studying Torah,’” she said in an interview afterward.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, in Tel Aviv, Thursday.

© Ariel Schalit/AP
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in Tel Aviv, Thursday.

The anger against the special status of the Haredi has long been a dynamic in Israeli politics, but it has grown more intense as the community has ballooned to roughly 13 percent of Israel’s total population, making them the country’s fastest growing demographic.

Haredi political parties have gained influence under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on them for his parliamentary majority. But the parties have threatened to pull out of the far-right governing coalition unless Netanyahu fast-tracks new legislation that would formalize the legislation of military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox students in yeshivas.

The parties had sought to limit the Supreme Court’s power to rule against the military exemption as part of the judicial overhaul, an “override clause” that would let the parliament ignore some rulings. With the judicial overhaul sidelined, at least for now, they are demanding the prime minister follow through on promises to quickly pass changes in the draft exemption.

“Why did we sign coalition agreements? So they wouldn’t happen?” Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, a head of the United Torah Judaism party, told an ultra-Orthodox news site Tuesday.

“[Netanyahu] tells me that he can’t do it, so then he won’t be prime minister,” said Porush. “Go home!”

The moves come as a growing number of ultra-Orthodox women have joined the Israeli workforce and men have enlisted in the army. They join units like Netzah Yehuda, a special combat battalion that enforces strict kashrut dietary laws and forbids women from entering its premises.

But that level of integration concerns some conservative rabbis, who fear the erosion of fundamental values. And the vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox view Israeli enlistment as an existential attack on their centuries-long tradition of segregation from secular, modern society. Many reference the 1948 decision by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to grant the then-small number of ultra-Orthodox a military exemption so they could continue their religious studies.

“The Torah is the center, the soul of our lives, of us individually, of the Jewish nation and also of the station of Israel,” Israel Cohen, 39, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Brama. “The army is not appropriate for most Haredim. We see that most Haredim who go into the army do not come out the same way. They have different values.”

Coalition agreements signed between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties also reportedly promise to funnel billions to ultra-Orthodox institutions, housing developments, and health-care and child-care services, proposals that have further infuriated the anti-governmental protests.

“I was raised that I should contribute to the country as much as I can, by working, by serving in the army, by paying taxes,” said Goldenberg, the veteran. “It can be a heavy burden. Everybody needs to be part of it somehow.”

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.