In the past week, the tears of an eight-year-old girl named Na’ama Margolis have
become the central image in the conflict between the haredi and the non-haredi
Terrified to go to school in Beit Shemesh because of harassment
from ultra-Orthodox extremists, Na’ama’s fear of walking 300 meters to class
touched a chord deep in Israeli society.
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The conflict is nothing new: The
tension has simmered for decades between haredi groups – who want to live in
environments suited to their beliefs – and the secular and national-religious
communities, who feel increasingly threatened by the encroachment of the haredi
lifestyle on their values.
The harassment accompanying the opening of the
Orot Girls school in Beit Shemesh in September drew media attention and public
outrage, but nothing like the events of the past week: condemnations from the
prime minister, the police chief, the finance minister and countless MKs and
politicians, not to mention the arrests of men accused of spitting on women and
attacking news crews. Only Na’ama’s tears had the power to move so many
There are two central questions surrounding the frenzy of
attention on the clash between haredim and non-haredim: Why now? And will
anything really change?
City Councilor Rachel Azaria, who has led the fight
against haredi extremism in Jerusalem for years, said that the recent events in
Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh pointed to a larger process of soul-searching
instigated by the summer of social protests.
“It’s about the identity of
the Israeli society, returning the power to the people, figuring out how to live
together, knowing that we want to live in this country and that the country is
important,” said Azaria.
“Discrimination against women is the same thing
– how can we have less of a gap between how the country is run and what is
important to us?” she asked. “Israeli society is now starting to check our holes
and all the places where we need to improve.
“We are trying to determine what kind of society we are – is this a democracy where the majority decides, or
is there a minority that pushes everyone in one direction?” Rabbi Uri Regev, the
head of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, expressed optimism that the
events of the last week would lead to meaningful change.
is that something will happen; emotions are too high, frustration is too great,”
said Regev. “Clearly this is something that has touched gut
According to Regev, there will be a two-part test, which will
determine whether or not there will be meaningful change. The first test is
immediate and clear: Do the authorities have the ability to enforce the law?
Rabbis in Beit Shemesh associated with the extremist groups have already vowed
to replace any signs that were removed demanding modest dress or that women
cross the street. Beit Shemesh announced on Monday that 400 cameras will be
mounted around the city to try to stop harassment. Will that be enough? Will the
police be enable to enforce the law?
The second test is more difficult to
measure, explained Regev. It requires the Israeli public to realize that the
issue is not just about discrimination against women or one national-religious
girls’ school, but a deeper-rooted problem of haredi extremism that is affecting
the lives of all of the residents in issues from civil marriage to
“It won’t be a real transformation until we realize that it
doesn’t start with segregation of women and doesn’t end with removal of signs,”
“The main problem I see is that it is not a real awakening to
see the pitfalls of religious extremism and infringement of civil liberties,” he
said. “This isn’t about civil liberties, it’s about something that
attracted the media and is a cause célèbre for the day.”
applauded the attention given to the problem, and the condemnations that have
rained down from politicians and leaders across the spectrum, as a meaningful
step in the right direction.
Whether or not change results from the
increased concern remains to be seen over the coming weeks as police struggle to
keep order in Beit Shemesh. Na’ama Margolis has become a local celebrity, as the
innocent face of an issue that activists complain politicians have been too slow
to address. Because sometimes, the tears of a child can move mountains faster
than all the statements and legislation in the world.