Tensions ran high in Beit Shemesh, Israel, Tuesday night as people gathered to protest against the rise of ultra- Orthodox extremism. Estimates put the number of demonstrators in the thousands.
Protesters from Beit Shemesh and beyond, religious and secular, kids with parents and even the Israeli Hells Angels arrived to speak out against a growing frequency in attacks against a local religious-Zionist girls’ elementary school and the broader trend of haredi exclusion of women from the public domain.
Israel’s president urged “the entire nation” to support the battle “to save the majority from the hands of a small minority” on Tuesday, amid rising tensions between the country’s secular and religious Jews on one side and extremist ultra-orthodox groups on the other.
“We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state,” Shimon Peres said as thousands of Israelis gathered for a protest following an attack on an eight-year-old girl for dressing “immodestly”.
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Tuesday’s demonstration in the town of Beit Shemesh took place close to a school at which girls as young as six have been targeted by zealous ultra-orthodox, or Haredi, men for dressing in regulation knee-length skirts and tops with sleeves to at least the elbow.
Haredi protesters have spat and shouted “whore” and “Nazi” at the pupils and their mothers. Earlier this week, Israeli television news broadcast footage of Naama Margolese, eight, sobbing as she described being abused and spat at on the street by Haredi men. The girl comes from an orthodox Jewish family and attends Orot girls school, which serves religious Jewish families in the area.
Two days of rioting and attacks on television crews by zealous Haredi men in Beit Shemesh followed the broadcast.
The protest took place directly opposite the Bnot Orot School, which has been at the center of controversy in Beit Shemesh since it opened last September. The school is located on the border between the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the mixed neighborhoods of Givat Sharet and Kiryat Scheinfeld.
“Enough is enough,” commented Jenny Zivotofsky, a protester who came all the way from Efrat after watching Na’ama on the Channel 2 news broadcast. “This is not only the fight for Beit Shemesh, it’s a fight for everyone in Israel.”
The Haredim in Israel are about 10% of the population, but form a far higher proportion in cities such as Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
Extremist protesters are a small minority within the ultra-orthodox community and many Haredi leaders have spoken out against their views and actions. Peres acknowledged that most Haredim did not support the extremists. “The ultra-orthodox public in Israel as a whole opposes these phenomena and condemns them,” he said. “It is important that they continue to do so and to speak in a loud and clear voice.”