Mass rally against ultra-Orthodox persecution of girls and women
Shimon Peres urges Israelis to rally against extremism
Israel’s president has urged Israelis to rally against ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremism in what he called a fight for the “soul of the nation”.
Shimon Peres was speaking as activists gathered to protest in the town of Beit Shemesh against the way some ultra-Orthodox Jews treat women.
There have been two days of clashes in the town after a girl said she had been harassed on her way to school.
Some ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh are seeking to segregate men and women.
Mr Peres said today was a “test for the nation”, not just the police.
“The entire nation must be recruited in order to save the majority from the hands of a small minority,” Mr Peres said, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
He said the demonstration was a defence of the “character” of the state of Israel “against a minority which breaks our national solidarity”.
‘Afraid to go to school’
Anger spilled over after an eight-year-old American girl, Naama Margolese, said she was afraid to walk to school in the town because ultra-Orthodox men shouted at her.
“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,” she said in a subsequent interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
In his statement, Mr Peres said: “No person has the right to threaten a girl, a woman or any person in any way. They are not the lords of this land.”
Dozens, many holding placards, have gathered outside the Orot girls’ school, attended by the eight-year-old.
Women have reported similar incidents in the town of 100,000, some 18 miles (30km) south-west of Jerusalem.
Sarit Ramon described the situation in the town, where religiously observant immigrants live alongside Israelis embracing a more modern lifestyle, as having been “catastrophic for years”.
“When I told that I was spat at a year and a half ago, people raised an eyebrow, and that was about it,” she told Reuters.
Alisa Coleman told the BBC that she had been called a prostitute when dressed in a short-sleeved T-shirt and a skirt.
Though underlining that this behaviour was carried out by only a tiny proportion of the community, she said what was happening in Beit Shemesh was “a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole country”.
On Monday, one police officer was slightly hurt and a number of Orthodox Jews were detained after a group of some 300 ultra-Orthodox residents pelted police with stones and eggs in an incident reportedly triggered after police tried to remove a sign ordering segregation.
A television crew attempting to film in the town were surrounded and harassed – the second alleged attack on journalists in as many days.
On Sunday, a crew from Channel 2 news, which originally aired Naama Margolese’s story, were attacked as they were filming, say reports, with rocks allegedly thrown at their van.
After Monday’s clashes, unnamed ultra-Orthodox activists from Beit Shemesh issued a statement condemning the violence, but also accusing 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”.
Such clashes have become more frequent in Israel in recent years as the authorities have challenged efforts by ultra-Orthodox Jews to segregate women in public places.
The BBC’s Jon Donnison, in Jerusalem, says the events have highlighted what is a growing religious divide in Israel.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10% of the population in Israel. The community has a high birth rate and is growing rapidly.
Rally was originally slated to take place in the courtyard of a girl’s school, but the location was changed after Haredi extremists threatened violence.
By Oz Rosenberg and Ophir Bar-Zohar, Haaretz
Thousands of Israelis are amassing near the Orot girl’s school in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday [Dec 27], a city that has become a symbol for the struggle against gender segregation and religious extremism.
The school’s arguably most-famous student is Na’ama Margolese, the 8-year-old American immigrant who became a focal point after Channel 2 news broadcast a story Friday night showing her facing a daily gauntlet of abuse from Haredi extremists as she walks to school. Margolese did not attend the rally.
The rally was originally slated to take place in the courtyard of the school, but the venue was changed after organizers said Haredi extremists had threatened violence unless the location was changed.
Both MK Miri Regev (Likud) and Amir Peretz (Labor) were among the thousands to attend the rally.
On Monday, violent incidents continued in Beit Shemesh, Haredim clashed with police officers and attacked two television news crews. At least six people were arrested or detained for questioning.
The violent scenes in Beit Shemesh on Sunday, when a Channel 2 news team was attacked by 200 Haredi men, were repeated on Monday.
On Monday morning, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men surrounded police officers and municipal inspectors who came to remove, for at least the third time this week, a sign on Hazon Ish Street, in the Haredi neighborhood Nahala Vemenuha, ordering men and women to use separate sidewalks. The men tried to prevent the sign’s removal, calling the police officers “Nazis” and dancing around them in circles.
A few hours later a crew from Channel 10 was attacked as it tried to film a piece on education in the city. Police officers dispatched to the scene after the news team called for help clashed with dozens of Haredim. Some of them lay on the ground in an attempt to keep other members of the group from being arrested. Three people were taken into custody.
About an hour later, a second television crew was attacked as it filmed the controversial sign. The Channel 2 camera crew was pelted with eggs, and a videographer was physically assaulted. Police officers sealed off the street and found themselves facing around 300 Haredim who shouted at them to leave, threw rocks at them and set dumpsters on fire. Officers detained three suspects for questioning.
Earlier Tuesday, Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul held a press conference at city hall, where he rebuffed calls to step down.
“I will continue to serve, as long as the public wants me here”, Abutbul said.
Abutbul also lent his support to the struggle against religious extremism in the city, stating that he will “act decisively against anyone who lifts a hand on children,” but claimed that the controversial sign has been around for 10 years, and the city has “never received a single complaint.”
At one point during the press conference, a man interrupted the mayor, yelling him down and calling on him to step down. Security officers were able to remove him from the premises.