Beit Shemesh protest - Michal Fattal - 27.12.2011
Protest against women's exclusion in Beit Shemesh, Dec. 27, 2011. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Veteran residents of Beit Shemesh, once a secular-traditional city on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, who see their city subject to the threats of the extreme ultra-Orthodox, have been feeling for quite some time now that someone - the government, the media, other people - have forgotten them. "The real story is that we have been conquered by the ultra-Orthodox by virtue of an agreement that [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu made with them," said a secular woman protester at Tuesday night's demonstration.

She was born in Beit Shemesh and raised her children there, but says she has been having a hard time recently recognizing the city in which she grew up.

The demonstration took place in the square below the Orot Banot school. It was on the road to that school that 8-year-old Na'ama Margolese was attacked by ultra-Orthodox extremists.

That 8-year-old can be credited with the belated uprising of the residents of Beit Shemesh, both religious and secular, against the increasingly swift ultra-Orthodox takeover of their city. For this reason alone, perhaps we should be happy about the spitting incident that made Na'ama a symbol of everything that's been happening in Beit Shemesh, especially in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a huge neighborhood built originally to house the secular, then becoming mixed and then, a few years ago, being taken over by ultra-Orthodox extremists.

"Some of them were thrown out of Mea She'arim for being bullies and criminals," said Gila Pelos, a self-defined "Orthodox religious woman," who lives in the Nofei Aviv neighborhood right below Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Pelos, whose sons go to the Orot Banim school and have had stones thrown at them, has joined the parents' patrol to protect the children from the Orthodox schools from the spitting and stone-throwing of the ultra-Orthodox extremists.

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Most of the participants in last night's protest were from Beit Shemesh. Among them were Esther and Aharon, an ultra-Orthodox couple from Ramat Beit Shemesh who said "violence has to be dealt with, because we came to Beit Shemesh to live a liberal life, although we are Haredim [ultra-Orthodox]. If things keep up this way, in 10 years we'll leave, too," Aharon said.

Also among the protesters was Asher Gold, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox students association, who said he was there to "represent the Haredi public, most of whom are very opposed to these extremists."

Two secular women stopped me to say that when they go for a walk at night, they take a big rock and sometimes a knife, to be on the safe side. "This isn't the city I grew up in," one said, who came back here to live after 30 years in Tel Aviv."

If there is anyone the city's residents who came to the rally can find to blame for the situation, it is the mayor, Moshe Abutbul. They say for years he did not hear their complaints about attacks on women by the increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox. According to Tzion Sultan, a local social activist, Abutbul wants to make secular people and the moderately religious leave the city, and 7,500 people have done precisely that over the past four years.

Cooperation between Abutbul, the ultra-Orthodox Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias and the prime minister have led to the fact that out of 30,000 housing units soon to be built in the city, only 2,000 are earmarked for secular or moderate Orthodox people, Sultan says.

The question is how long will it take us to forget about Beit Shemesh and leave its secular and moderate Orthodox residents, which still make up 65 percent of the city's population, to the ultra-Orthodox extremists and the municipality that cooperates with them.