Israel's president says the country's ultra-orthodox minority is threatening national values, following attacks on "immodestly dressed" schoolgirls.
Israel’s President Shimon Peres 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”.
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 (8) 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.
Beit Shemesh has become a focal point of tensions between extremist Haredi groups, whose numbers in the city are increasing, and its majority religious-nationalist population. The Haredim are opposed to the location of the girls’ school next to an ultra-orthodox enclave.
But there has been mounting concern in recent months over broader demands by extremist Haredim to remove images of women from advertising billboards in Jerusalem, enforce gender segregation on public transport, in shops and medical centres, and ban women soldiers from taking part in singing and dancing events organised by the army.
Last week a woman bus passenger made headlines when she refused to comply with a demand from a Haredi man on the bus that she move to the rear. A policeman called by the driver also asked the woman to move. When she continued to refuse, the Haredi man disembarked.
Despite an Israeli court ruling outlawing enforced segregation on buses earlier this year, “voluntary segregation” is permitted. Women mainly sit at the back and men mainly at the front on some routes in Jerusalem.
Peres told reporters at his official residence that Tuesday’s protest against ultra-orthodox extremism was “a test in which the entire nation will have to mobilise to rescue the majority from the claws of a small minority that is chipping away at our most hallowed values”.
He added: “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.”
His comments followed similar criticism of extremist ultra-orthodox groups by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, earlier this week. He told Cabinet colleagues there was no place for harassment or sex discrimination in Israel’s “democratic, Western, liberal state”.
The police, he said, would arrest people who “spit, harass or raise a hand”.
But, Netanyahu added, this was a social issue, not just a legal one, and required action by public figures and religious leaders. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, also criticised gender segregation and the exclusion of women from the public sphere earlier this month, saying it was reminiscent of extremist regimes.
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.”—