JERUSALEM (JTA) — For several years now, the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh has been the site of on-again, off-again religious violence.
But it wasn’t until the plight of a fearful 8-year-old girl from a Modern Orthodox immigrant family from America was broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 over the weekend that the religious tensions in Beit Shemesh captured the nation’s attention, including that of Israel’s prime minister and its president.
In the broadcast, the girl, Na’ama Margolis, told a reporter that she is afraid to walk the 300 yards from her home to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school for fear that the haredi Orthodox men who protest outside of the school will hurt her. Video showed Na’ama’s mother encouraging her to walk the short way to school punctuated by the girl’s whimpers and cries of "No, No."
Some haredi residents of Beit Shemesh, a suburb of some 80,000 people, are upset about the opening in September of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, across the street from their neighborhood. Confrontations between haredi Orthodox activists and Modern Orthodox opposite the school have waxed and waned since the beginning of the school year, and often resulted in violence.
Haredi protesters have thrown eggs and bags of excrement at the young girls and called them “sluts” and “shiksas.” Haredi opponents of the school say the girls and their mothers dress immodestly, with sleeves and skirts that are not sufficiently long.
After Margolis’ story aired over the weekend, the dispute in Beit Shemesh became national news and the violence ratcheted up a notch.
On Sunday, haredi rioters surrounded and threw stones at city workers removing signs calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets. When haredi activists put up new signs to replace them, the police who returned to remove them Monday encountered rioting by about 300 haredi men who threw stones at police and burned trash cans, according to Haaretz.
Fisticuffs also broke out when news teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi extremists when they attempted to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.
On Tuesday evening, some 2,000 defenders of the girls — secular and Modern Orthodox — struck back with a rally at the school against attempts to exclude women from the public sphere in Israel.
"Free Israel from religious coercion" read one sign at the rally. "Stop Israel from becoming Iran" read another.
"We are struggling over Israel’s character not only in Beit Shemesh and not only over the exclusion of women but against all the extremists who have come out of the woodwork to try and impose their worldview on us," opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, said at the rally.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence aimed at women. Netanyahu also reportedly spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from public spaces are enforced.
"The exclusion of women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Netanyahu told participants at a Bible contest Tuesday evening.
Kadima lawmaker Nachman Shai submitted a bill to the Knesset on Tuesday that would make "publicizing, inciting, preaching or encouraging gender segregation in the public sphere" a criminal act punishable by three years in prison.
Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend Tuesday’s rally.
"Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us, religious, secular, traditional must as one man defend the character of the State of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity," Peres told reporters Tuesday.
The haredi Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul, decried the violence against young girls and the exclusion of women.
"Beit Shemesh denounces such behavior. Violent men belong behind bars. I urge the Israel Police to act with a firm hand against all the rioters,” he said, adding that reporters should not make assumptions about all haredi Orthodox Israelis.
Following the violence, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.