JERUSALEM — Despite unusually inclement weather and with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, thousands of Israelis gathered to protest against the increasingly extremist behavior of ultra-Orthodox Jews against women. Among the protesters were many ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves, frightened by fanatical tendencies that have sprung up in the community.
The current wave of anger followed an incident in which a secular 8-year old girl, Na’ama Margolese, an American immigrant, was filmed by TV cameras as she was attacked and spat upon by ultra-Orthodox men while walking to school in Beit Shemesh, the bedroom community nestled in green foothills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The daily newspaper Ha’aretz reported that representatives of ultra-orthodox communities are turning to the media to ask for help in dealing with minority, extremist thugs who have gained an upper hand.
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In an analysis by reporter Yair Ettinger, himself an orthodox Jew, he described ultra-Orthodox Jews “reaching out to plead for the help of journalists who work for secular newspapers,” which many ultra-Orthodox now think will play a decisive role in increasing the public pressure on the extremists living in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.
“They want the police and the government to get on the extremists' case, because the leadership vacuum created by politicians, rabbis and newspapers that serve the ultra-Orthodox world has left mainstream Haredim looking for help in places they normally wouldn't go,” he said.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews comprise about 25 percent of the Beit Shemesh community. The mayor, Moshe Abutbul, himself an ultra-orthodox Jew representing the right-wing Shas party, was slammed by politicians from both the left and the right wings of the political sea scape for having permitted or even encouraged the rampant growth of a radical subculture.
Hours before the rally Abutbul, who was not invited to attend, held a defiant press conference in which he accused “outside elements” of incitement in his city and said, in reference to Margolese, that "there is no reason on earth for a person to raise a hand — let alone on helpless girls.”
In response to the violence and vulgarity expressed by local ultra-Orthodox against women in his city, the mayor said, "there is no excuse for anyone who behaves provocatively. Rioters will be dealt with with a firm hand."
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According to a report in the daily Yedioth Acharonoth, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed resolving the growing tensions in Beit Shemesh by dividing the city into two separate entities, one defined as an ultra-orthodox city, the other undefined.
Immediately he was roundly attacked by Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch and by members of his own coalition government.
Yachimovich said the idea of separating Beit Shemesh into two cities posed several risks and only proved the government's ineptitude and inability to enforce the law and demand respect for democratic norms in the State of Israel.
"According to this idea, Israel could be divided into a number of separate countries according to people's faith and worldview. A responsible government's mission is to bring Israel's diverse populations together and subject them to a uniting set of rules and values. Such a separation on behalf of the government is like raising a white flag over the idea of the Zionist vision," she said.
Miri Regev, a former military officer who serves in parliament representing Netanyahu’s own Likud party, and who attended the rally, said, “We can’t give up on Beit Shemesh, but there are usually problems in every mixed area, especially when there are extremists trying to impose their lifestyle on the rest.”
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"We may not have a choice but to allot one area in Beit Shemesh to the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] population, while allowing the secular and traditional population to live in peace in the rest of the city," he said.
Beit Shemesh is a city of about 80,000 within the Jerusalem district, whose history dates to the Biblical era. Historically, it has been counted as a safe haven for families with children looking for a suburban lifestyle within a half hour commute of the commercial and job centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Its ultra-Orthodox population has boomed in the past 20 years as real estate prices in Jerusalem rose beyond the reach of both young professional families and the ultra-Orthodox, who often have families of more than seven children.
Jerusalem district police chief Niso Shaham called on rabbis to condemn the extremism and called on ultra-Orthodox women to complain in greater numbers to the police.
Underscoring that "a few fanatics do not represent the entire ultra-Orthodox community," Shaham said the rally had been approved "because we believe the voices of those who oppose the exclusion of women must be heard."
Shaham added that growing extremism among the ultra-Orthodox “has been going on under our noses for years.”