Israel's 63rd Independence Day - Moti Kimche
Celebrations of Israel's 63rd Independence Day last year. Photo by Moti Kimche
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The Beit Shemesh municipality has refrained from putting up Israeli national flags ahead of Independence Day in areas surrounding ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the city that has become known as a hotbed of Haredi extremism.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods said that Mayor Moshe Abutbul, an ultra-Orthodox man, bowed to pressure of radically anti-Zionist Haredi circles and decided to refrain from putting up flags in areas where extremists might react with violence to national emblems.

Haredi extremism in Beit Shemesh sparked a nationwide uproar in December last year, after 8-year-old Na'ama Margolese was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men on the way to school, on account of being "immodestly" dressed.

"In terms of Haredi radicalization, this has been a very difficult year for Beit Shemesh," says Dov Lipman, a veteran community activist. "Some people are still traumatized by what happened [to the 8-year-old girl]. We thought we had been defeated by the extremists, but it turned out we were victorious. For this reason, I would expect our local leaders to be particularly sensitive and show, with pride, that we are a Zionist city."

He said that when he contacted the municipality to ask why flags weren't installed in non-Orthodox neighborhoods, they answered that they feared the flags be sabotaged by Haredi arsonists.

"How can we accept that soon after extremists spat on girls on their way to school, [the municipality] refrains from putting up flags on the same road, to show those extremists that in a predominantly Zionist city they won't have their way?" wondered a resident of the secular neighborhood of Givat Sharett. "I'm not saying we should provoke them inside their own neighborhoods, just to spite them, but this is a main road. I have no doubt that they have given in to the ultra-Orthodox bullying."

The Beit Shemesh municipality said in response that flags have not been put up in the areas in question for at least 15 years. But residents insist that the phenomenon is much more conspicuous than in previous years.

"I used to live by the water tower until two years ago," said resident Alisa Coleman. "It's right across the road from the Haredi neighborhood. Until a few years ago there were many flags, flying along hundreds of meters. And now, there are none."