By Isabel Kershner
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel â€” The latest battleground in Israelâ€™s struggle over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.
She is Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are observant modern Orthodox Jews. An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.
The country was outraged. Naamaâ€™s picture has appeared on the front pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that â€œIsrael is a democratic, Western, liberal stateâ€ and pledged that â€œthe public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,â€ there have been days of confrontation at focal points of friction here.
Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting â€œNazisâ€ at the security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like â€œshikse,â€ a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and â€œwhore.â€ Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.
For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girlâ€™s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.
The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a womanâ€™s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly â€œkosherâ€ buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back.
The virulent coercion in Beit Shemesh has been attributed mainly to a group of several hundred ultra-Orthodox extremists who came here from Jerusalem, known as the Sicarii, or daggermen, after a violent and stealthy faction of Jews who tried to expel the Romans in the decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Religious extremism is hardly new to Israel, but the Sicarii and their bullying ilk push with a bold vigor that has yet to be fully explained.
Certainly, Israelâ€™s coalition politics have allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to wield disproportionate power beyond the roughly 10 percent of the population they currently represent.
The ultra-Orthodox communityâ€™s rapidly increasing numbers â€” thanks to extraordinarily high birthrates â€” may also have emboldened the hard core, as may have their insular neighborhoods. And their leadership appears to lack moderating brakes.
In any case, the extremists have provoked an outpouring of opposition from all those who are more flexible, be they ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, mainstream or secular. In fact, it was an ultra-Orthodox-led group that claimed at least part of the credit for making Naamaâ€™s story public.
â€œWe are working to save our city and to save our homes,â€ said Dov Lipman, 40, a local activist, rabbi and self-defined modern ultra-Orthodox, who moved to Beit Shemesh from Silver Spring, Md., seven years ago. Seizing on the public mood of rejecting ultra-Orthodox bullying, Mr. Lipman and a group of supporters have been lobbying the Israeli Parliament, organizing protests and recently hired a media consultant. He said that is how Naamaâ€™s story came out.
Built near the ruins of an ancient city of that name mentioned in the Bible, Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, first drawing mostly poor immigrants from North Africa, then immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and English-speaking countries. With the construction of the new neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh A and B in the 1990s, the ultra-Orthodox population boomed. Residents say 20,000 more planned housing units are earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox.
In Ramat Beit Shemesh B, signs on the walls of buildings call for modesty, exhorting women and girls to dress in buttoned-up, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. Outside a synagogue on Hazon Ish Street in the Kirya ha-Haredit quarter, a sign requested that females should cross to the opposite sidewalk and certainly not tarry outside the building.
Naamaâ€™s school, Orot, opened in September in an area with a large community of English-speaking observant Jews that borders on the strictest ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. She quickly found she had to run a miserable gantlet to get to school, even dressed in long sleeves and long skirts.
Riots broke out on Monday when the police accompanied media crews into Hazon Ish Street, the area where Naamaâ€™s tormentors are believed to have come from. Hundreds of black-garbed men and boys poured out of the synagogue and an adjacent seminary holding handwritten signs calling for the exclusion of women, illustrated with the male and female symbols used for public washrooms. One policeman was injured after being hit in the head with a rock and several arrests were made before the crowds dispersed at dusk.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox agitators blamed the news media for the unrest, saying they had come into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sow hatred and to persecute the residents for their religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, some residents insisted that Beit Shemesh was a tolerant city, but defended at least some gender separation and modesty on religious grounds.
â€œI think women are very poorly treated in Western society,â€ said Cindy Feder, 57, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh A, who came to Israel from New York in 1970, and who defines herself as an â€œopen haredi,â€ the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox. She said that the objectification of women on some billboards made her feel sick.
In the more austere Ramat Beit Shemesh B, a 32-year-old mother of four defended the gender separation on public transportation, saying that it was necessary to preserve womenâ€™s honor on crowded buses that squeezed people like â€œtomato puree.â€
But the woman, who gave only her first name, Rivka, for fear of provoking the disapproval of her neighbors, also told a story that revealed the costs of separation: one night, the extremists came and removed all the public benches from the neighborhood, so that the women could no longer sit outside with their children in the street.