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A spitting incident sets off Israeli frustration with Jewish zealotry

The harassment of a schoolgirl by Beit Shemesh's ultra-Orthodox community has ignited mainstream Israelis' simmering frustrations with the religious community's growing influence. 

By Correspondent / December 27, 2011

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands with children near a police barricade before a protest against violence by religious zealots trying to impose their religious code on the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, Tuesday. Several thousand pro-democracy activists protested on Tuesday in the flashpoint town at a rally organised after an outburst of public anger when an eight-year-old girl said on national television that ultra-Orthodox men had spat at her on her way to school, accusing her of immodest dress.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Beit Shemesh, Israel

The harassment of an 8-year-old girl by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh is shaking Israel’s self image to the core, stirring nationwide outrage about escalating religious zealotry and creeping public segregation of women.

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For months, Na’ama Margolis and classmates at her school endured insults and spitting by the neighborhood's strict Orthodox Jews – known in Hebrew as "Haredi,'' or God fearing – who complain that they should dress more modestly. When their story was featured on a weekend news magazine several days ago, it ignited already simmering worry about efforts of the ultra-religious to exclude women in places like public buses or the army.

"I think the whole country needs to wake up … that it’s not just a corner in Beit Shemesh,’’ said Ailsa Coleman, a 42-year-old neighbor who volunteered to escort Margolis's classmates outside the school and was also spat on. "It’s happening everywhere."

In recent days there have been repeated clashes between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police and attacks on news crews in Beit Shemesh. Thousands of protesters gathered in the city with signs reading "Segregation of Women is my Red Line’’ and warning of an Israeli theocracy.

The segregation reflects the Haredi minority's growing influence on Israel's politics and economy. Civil rights advocates and Beit Shemesh locals say that the government and law enforcement authorities have turned a blind eye, even though the examples of exclusion proliferate.

They point to special arrangements for ultra-Orthodox communities where women are relegated to the rear of the buses, have separate lines in eateries, and sit in health clinic waiting rooms that are divided by gender. There are also efforts to erase images of women from public billboards. Last week, a secular woman was heckled for riding in the front of one of the buses and pressured to move.

"This ties into whether we are democratic liberal state that protects women’s rights, or whether we’re not going to be a democracy in a future," said Einat Horovitz, a spokeswoman of the Religious Action Center, an Israeli nonprofit which challenged the bus segregation in Israel’s Supreme Court. "Politicians don’t realize that being a democracy isn’t only about the rule of the majority, its about protecting human rights and the rights of the minority, and this has escaped our politicians."

In Beit Shemesh, prominent signs calling for modest dress and excluding women from certain sidewalks near synagogues have been tolerated for years in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near the elementary school, which happens to serve a less strict group of Orthodox Jews. 

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