About 10,000 people came to Beit Shemesh last night to protest against religious extremism in Israel in general and this Jerusalem-area city in particular. The issue came to a head publicly after television coverage last week showing ultra-Orthodox extremists harassing Na'ama Margolese, 8, the daughter of immigrants from North America. The rally took place next to her school, Orot Banot.
Margolese became a focus of attention after Channel 2 news broadcast a story Friday night showing her facing a gauntlet of abuse from Haredi men and boys as she walked to school. The conflict comes against the backdrop of various efforts to separate men and women or to exclude women from the public space. Last week the case of Tanya Rosenblit, who refused demands by Haredim that she sit in the back of a public intercity bus, attracted major public attention. Over the Sukkot holiday this fall, efforts were made to separate the large numbers of men and women who crowded the streets of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood. Another recent flashpoint is the general absence of images of women on billboards and bus advertising in the capital, and efforts to counter that absence.
On her way to the Beit Shemesh rally on Tuesday Na'ama's mother, Hadassa Margolese, said: "We are feeling all the support. I hope what we are doing will change the future of Beit Shemesh." At the demonstration itself she told the crowd she has been asked whether she planned to leave Beit Shemesh. "Under no circumstances," she said, adding that the plan is to make the city totally Haredi, without asking anyone's opinion.
President Shimon Peres on Tuesday praised the condemnation of violence directed at women that has been expressed by certain members of the Haredi community. He also expressed support for the rally in Beit Shemesh.
"We saw police yesterday fighting for fundamental equal rights in Beit Shemesh," Peres said. "They did this as emissaries of the entire country."
Peres said last night's rally was a test for the people of Israel, not just the police. "All of us, religious, secular and traditional, must defend the image of the State of Israel in the face of a minority that is breaching national solidarity and expressing itself in an outrageous manner," President Peres said.
In her remarks at the rally, Hadassa Margolese criticized the leaders of Beit Shemesh for what she said were plans to allocate land in Haredi neighborhoods to build homes for 30,000 people.
Many demonstrators held signs calling on Mayor Moshe Abutbul to resign.
Some of the speakers blamed Haredi extremism in the city on Abutbul's management.
Prior to the rally Abutbul held a news conference in which he said he would continue to serve as mayor as long as the public wanted him to. He added that maintaining order was the responsibility of the Israel Police, not the municipality, but said he deal harshly with anyone who "lifted a hand against a boy or a girl."
Speaking at the rally on Tuesday, opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni said the battle was not only over Beit Shemesh. "It is much broader than any Na'ama [Margolese] or Tanya [Rosenblit]. The moderate Zionist majority can decide what image the State of Israel will have," Livni said.
For her part, Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich said: "This is not a battle of left and right. It's not a battle of secular people against the religiously observant. It is a battle of every Israeli citizen who loves the state and is fearful for its moral image."
At around 4:30 P.M. Tuesday, people began boarding buses is a number of cities, provided by the organizers and headed to Beit Shemesh for the demonstration.
Ina Zeligman, 75, of Holon, arrived on her one and equipped with protest signs in Russian.
"It was important to me to come and make my voice heard, because it's unbearable," Zeligman said. "It's irrational for a democratic country like ours to allow such a phenomenon to occur," she said.
Zeligman told a reporter that she immigrated from Ukraine in 1991 out of concern for her safety. "There was a great deal of anti-Semitism [there], but they never persecuted women," she said.
A woman in her 20s who was on the bus and did not give her name held a sign that said "You come close to the Torah through love, not hate."
Speaking at Tuesday's Bible Quiz for adults, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned efforts to exclude women from the public sphere, saying it ran counter to the spirit of the Bible and of Judaism and Israel's democratic values. He said it was also contrary to the fundamental principle of Judaism that one should "love thy neighbor as thyself." "I welcome the fact that important rabbis from among the Haredi public are coming out decisively against this phenomenon. I have instructed [law] enforcement authorities to exercise the fullest extent of the law against those who harass women in public places, he said."
On Monday, violent incidents continued in Beit Shemesh, there were clashes between Haredim and police. The Haredim also attacked two television news crews. At least six people were arrested or detained for questioning. The day before, a Channel 2 news team was attacked by 200 Haredi men. On Monday morning, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men surrounded police officers and municipal inspectors who came to remove a sign for at least the third time this week, that called for men and women to use separate sidewalks. The crowd tried to prevent the sign's removal and called the police officers "Nazis," while dancing around them in circles. At his news conference Tuesday, Mayor Abutbul said on Tuesday that the controversial sign had been in place for about ten years and the municipality had never received a complaint about it, saying it only became an issue when Channel 2 came to film it.
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