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. 

Baz Ratner/Reuters
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.

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.

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. 

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

"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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