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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. 

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In a statement, the Haredi rabbis of Beit Shemesh insisted that even without the signs, ultra-Orthodox women would follow rules of modesty.

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"It is for the honor toward women and the fact that Judaism orders the separation of men and women in the public sphere," the statement read, according to a transcript printed on the Ynet News website. It also asserted that the ultra-Orthodox wish to live in homogenous communities to allow them to pass on their way of life.

Since its inception, Israel has allowed ultra-Orthodox communities remain cut off from the mainstream, allowing them to set up autonomous school systems, granting them exemptions from compulsory military service, and providing them with subsidies so they can focus on religious study rather than joining the workforce. But their growing numbers – their birthrate is much higher than the Israeli average – have sparked worry about the ramifications for the Israeli economy and the influence on society.

Residents and officials said that Haredi community is taking out its frustration on the pupils because they wanted the school for their own children. In Beit Shemesh, there’s an ongoing turf battle between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the community for new building in the city. 

In response to the uproar, ultra Orthodox partners in Israel’s coalition accused Israel's secular media of a witch hunt against their community and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of selling out a loyal constituency for political convenience. Mr. Netanyahu’s said on Tuesday that segregation of women "contradicts traditional spirit of the Tanakh (Jewish scriptures, or Old Testament) and Judaism, and contradicts the democratic principles on which Israel was based."

Observers say that the uproar over segregation shows an enduring chasm between the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli mainstream. 

"Modern society has broken a lot of barriers, and religious society has kept some of those barriers up," says Aaron Katsman, a financial advisor and former economic columnist the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. "Both sides don’t know how to deal with each other. You have a meeting of two groups which have never spoken to each other, and never met each other, and neither side knows how to deal with it."

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