An estimated 10,000 people took to the streets of Beit Shemesh, a community between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Tuesday night to protest the actions of ultra-Orthodox extremist activists who are terrorizing students in the city’s Orthodox girls school Orot.
The school is located on the border between ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox neighborhoods.
The rally, which was organized by Beit Shemesh residents immediately after a popular Channel 2 news show devoted a segment to the plight of the schoolgirls, was attended by religious (including some ultra-Orthodox), traditional and secular Israelis from as far away as Eilat in the south.
A religiously mixed city of 85,000 residents between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh has become increasingly ultra-Orthodox in recent years. According to Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom, since Mayor Moshe Abutbal, who is ultra-Orthodox, took office, building projects for 30,000 housing units have been advanced for the city. Of these, it is estimated that 90 percent are to be built for the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.
The zealots, known as the Sicarii, “have requested that local clothing and shoe stores not show their wares in their display windows,” according to Rabbi Uri Regev, the founder of Hiddush. “Owners of women’s clothing shops have been warned to only stock items in one color.”
Extremists from the community badly damaged a half-built shopping mall because its owners said they would permit men and women to shop together. The mall, its windows broken, never opened.
Protesters at Tuesday’s rally held signs that said “Beit Shemesh is Tolerant” and “End Religious Intolerance.” The sign held by one young haredi (ultra-Orthodox) demonstrator wearing a black coat and a wide-brimmed black hat said simply, “Enough!”
One of the speakers was Hadassah Margolis, whose terrified 8-year-old daughter, Na’ama, was shown in the televised news report walking to school. Haredi men have previously spit at Na’ama and called her a “whore.”
The events led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order police to act more aggressively to crack down on religious extremists.
The order came on Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.
Also Saturday night, a haredi man was arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman while she was helping girls onto a school bus at a religious Zionist elementary school in Beit Shemesh. The man and other attackers claimed the woman was immodestly dressed, according to Haaretz.
“Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state. The public sphere is open and safe for everyone — men and women alike. There is no place for harassment or discrimination," Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
But that didn’t stop political foes from raising the issue.
In a highly charged speech at the rally, Knesset Member Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima faction, told the crowd, “It’s time to continue fighting our enemies from without and within. We need to build a state where everyone can be free. To those who say we shouldn’t be too political, I say everything is political. This is a political struggle for the character of the State of Israel.”
Livni also said, “Anyone who spits on a little girl on her way to school, spits in the face of all of us. Any stone which is thrown at a policeman or soldier injures all of us, and any price-tag attack and graffiti of mosques embarrasses us all.”
Knesset Member Limor Livnat said that “the battle isn’t just for Beit Shemesh, it’s for the entire country. There are people who want to end our dream” of living together.
The rally took place against the backdrop of growing gender segregation and other perceived forms of religious coercion by religious extremists within haredi society.
Although the practice of banning women’s images from advertisements has been around for years, the Israeli public has become increasingly outraged in recent weeks by haredi attempts to prohibit women from singing at public and military events. There have also been attempts, in haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Bnai Brak, to prohibit women from walking on certain sidewalks, for fear they might mingle with men.
Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend the 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.
“Discrimination against women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Netanyahu told the audience at an adult Bible contest gathering Tuesday evening as the rally was getting underway.
The day before the rally, about 300 haredi men threw stones at police and burned trash cans after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day.
Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some were said to have called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”
Beit Shemesh residents and their supporters were also highly critical of the moderate haredi leadership. Why, they asked on Facebook and in television interviews, hasn’t the haredi leadership condemned the extremists?
While the rally was taking place Tuesday, Knesset Member Eli Yishai from the religious Shas Party told Channel 2 News that “haredim, religious and secular are all against what’s happening.” Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger also condemned the violence.
Also on Tuesday, Abutbul, Beit Shemesh’s mayor, defended his administration’s handling of the extremists. Many residents want the mayor to resign immediately, insisting that his lack of action has emboldened the fanatics.
“There is no reason on earth for a person to raise a hand — let alone on helpless girls,” Abutbul said Tuesday.
Abutbul’s statement was too little too late for Beit Shemesh resident Riki Metz, whose 8-year-old daughter attends the Orot school.
“My daughter’s class was stink-bombed the day after Simchat Torah,” Metz said hours before the rally. “It was a combination of fish, excrement and who knows what. The kids had to stay out of their classroom for seven days because of the smell, even with four fans running.”
Although Metz said her petite daughter has never been spit on, thankfully, “a few of her friends have had nightmares. The kids are anxious, even though they have by and large been coping.”
Metz said some of the haredim have trespassed on school property and that they call the schoolgirls whores and shiksas on an almost daily basis.
And it’s not only the schoolgirls who are being terrorized, Metz said.
“My next-door neighbor was attacked while in her car. She was rescued by the police.”
Metz said that “50 to 100” fervently Orthodox families are responsible for the mayhem.
“They’re called kana’im [zealots]. They’re involved in extortion, bullying beating, spitting on women. If someone doesn’t conform, they publish pashkavilim and threaten to destroy their businesses.”
In addition to calling on police to take more action, the government also acted to avoid religious tensions in the army after questions were raised about women singing at ceremonies. Strict interpretation of halacha enjoins men from listening to a women singing.
Orthodox Israeli soldiers must attend formal military ceremonies at which women sing but can be excused from informal social gatherings, the head of the military said.
Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz said Tuesday that female soldiers have equality in the military and that there is no ban on women’s singing in the IDF. He made the statements during an interview on Army Radio.
Religious cadets walked out of an official ceremony earlier this year at which female soldiers were singing. The cadets were removed from the officer training program.
“The IDF has room for the service of women wherever they can contribute,” Gantz said in the interview. Women can “contribute operationally, they can deal with situations, they can sing; the Hebrew singer is part of our culture,” he said.