Clashes took place on Sunday and Monday between ultra-Orthodox Jews and police in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh (photo from bbcimg.co.uk), near Jerusalem, leaving a police officer slightly hurt and a number of Orthodox Jews detained, according to reports.
Tensions between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox men started in the town after the latter demanded strict gender segregation and “modest” dress for women.
On Sunday the clashes came as police tried to remove one of several signs erected in Beit Shemesh calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalk and exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.
The growing ultra-Orthodox population also dispatched “modesty patrols” in order to enforce a chaste female appearance and hurled stones at offenders and outsiders.
During the clashes about 300 ultra-Orthodox residents threw stones and eggs at the police, slightly injuring one officer, and rubbish bins were set on fire.
While attempting to film in the town, a television crew were surrounded and harassed. It is the second alleged attack on journalists in two days as reports say that on Sunday a crew from Channel 2 news were attacked with rocks allegedly thrown at their van while they were filming.
Afraid to walk to school
Days before the clashes Channel 2 aired a story about eight-year-old American girl, Naama Margolese (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk).
The pale, blue-eyed, ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader said she is afraid to walk to her religious Jewish girls school because ultra-Orthodox extremists have spat on her and called her a “whore” for dressing “immodestly”.
“When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared … that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting,” Naama Margolese said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday.
“They were scary. They don’t want us to go to the school.”
The ultra-Orthodox view the school as an encroachment on their territory because it is located on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of whom are American immigrants.
According to the students dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily.
Naama’s mother, 30-year-old Chicago-born Hadassa Margolese, said : “They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city.”
Many Israelis have been angered by the broadcast about Naama Margolese’s story, which showed her sobbing en route to school. People have also been shocked because she is only eight, attends a religious school and dresses with long sleeves and a skirt, an outfit standard in mainstream Jewish religious schools, which extremists consider to be immodest.
The images prompted statements of outrage from the country’s leadership and a Facebook page dedicated to “protecting little Naama” was created and has nearly 10,000 followers.
Activists are also planning to hold a rally in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday at 6pm local time, in order to counter what they describe as intimidation by sections of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Thousands are expected to protest and some ultra-Orthodox Jews said they will join the rally in an attempt to distance themselves from the “extremists”.
In a statement unnamed ultra-Orthodox activists from Beit Shemesh condemned the violence but also accused the media of initiating “deliberate provocations in order to make the peaceful, quiet and tolerant residents, who live their lives according to their beliefs, look bad”.
‘An existential challenge’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to end attempts to enforce segregation of the sexes.
“The Israel police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and democratic state,” he told his cabinet.
But according to critics the abuse and segregation of women is not new in ultra-Orthodox areas in Israel and they accuse the government of turning a blind eye because they are king-makers in Israel coalition politics.
In recent years such clashes have become more frequent as the Israeli authorities have challenged ultra-Orthodox Jews’ efforts to segregate women in public places.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10% of Israel’s population and have a high birth rate which makes them the fastest growing sector.
While in the past they used to confine their strict lifestyle to their own neighbourhoods, as their population spreads to news areas they have become more and more aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others.
Recent points of contention also include demands for separate seating areas for women on buses and recently some soldiers refused to remain at a performance by a female singer.
“It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle,” Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and expert on the ultra-Orthodox said, “a challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge”.
Beit Shemesh is a city of about 100,000 people, including ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox and secular Jews.