Tensions ran high in Beit Shemesh Tuesday night as people gathered
to protest against the rise of ultra- Orthodox extremism. Estimates put the number of demonstrators in the thousands.
Beit Shemesh and beyond, religious and secular, kids with parents and even the
Israeli Hells Angels arrived to speak out against a growing frequency in attacks
against a local religious-Zionist girls’ elementary school and the broader trend
of haredi exclusion of women from the public domain.
Chanting “The nation
demands a Zionist Beit Shemesh” to the rhythm of this past summer’s mass social
justice protests, demonstrators held banners declaring, “Beit Shemesh is under a
Haredi occupation,” and “Haredim! Don’t spit in the well you drink
Addressing the crowd, local Beit Shemesh journalist Tzion Sultan
said that the city was becoming more and more extreme. To rousing applause, he
asked: “Where is this city going? We have to act now before Beit Shemesh becomes
the next Iran.”
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Rabbi Dov Lipman, a US-born Beit Shemesh resident who was
actively involved in organizing Tuesday night’s protest, said that the city was
a good example of haredi zealots attempting to impose their beliefs on
mainstream Israeli society.
Lipman, together with Hadassah Margolis, the
mother of eight-year-old Na’ama, whose story of being spat on by haredi
extremists made headlines this week, lit the Hanukka lights on a stage in front
of the crowd.
The protest took place directly opposite the Bnot Orot
School, which has been at the center of controversy in Beit Shemesh since it
opened last September. The school is located on the border between the
ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the mixed neighborhoods of Givat Sharet and Kiryat Scheinfeld.
enough,” commented Jenny Zivotofsky, a protester who came all the way from Efrat
after watching Na’ama on the Channel 2 news broadcast. “This is not only the
fight for Beit Shemesh, it’s a fight for everyone in Israel.”
hassidic resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet living immediately adjacent to the
school, said the situation is not as bad as it appears on TV.
speaks out against this violence; there is not one rabbi who supports this kind
of thing,” he said, as he observed the protest from the entrance to his
He added, however, that he would not join the demonstration
because he opposes public rallies of any political nature.
married ultra-Orthodox woman who has lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet for the
past five years, said she did not understand what had led to the protest,
attributing the demonstration to “boredom during the Hanukka
“As a woman, I do not feel my rights are under attack, and I do
not feel threatened by those outside of my community either,” she said, adding,
however, that she felt it was inappropriate for immodestly dressed women to walk
around her neighborhood in front of haredi men.
“I grew up in Belgium, so
I’m used to seeing secular people. But in Beit Shemesh, everyone’s Jewish and we
need to find a way for everyone to live together.”
Tensions did flare
briefly at the rally, when one haredi observer began to shout provocatively at
the demonstrators, causing a swarm of protesters to surround him before the
police arrived to prevent a physical confrontation.
Rachel and Yaron, a
secular couple from the founding community of Beit Shemesh, welcomed the protest
but called for municipal and governmental intervention.
don’t pay arnona [municipal taxes] and don’t pay taxes, but the entire city
budget goes to them,” Rachel complained.
“The last time housing for the
regular community was built was in 1998,” Yaron added, saying that the
infrastructure of the city was neglected because of funds directed to the haredi
Non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh have been growing
increasingly frustrated with the ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbol, claiming
that he favors the haredi community over other groups in the
Shmulik, another hassidic resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, also
spoke out against the violence, but said that protesters should call on the
police and the government to fight the phenomenon, not the haredi
“There are crazy people in all sectors of the population,
thugs who beat people up and spit and scream. Why are these demonstrations only
when such incidents comes from a small minority of crazy people in the haredi
community?” he asked.
He also said that the controversy was inflated due
to the political interests of those seeking to split the current coalition and
bring down the government.
Political leaders did make a show at the
protest with opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni telling those
gathered: “I want to say to those who didn’t come here [that] we are the sane
Zionist majority and we can determine how Israel is seen. And to those who say
we shouldn’t be too political, I say everything is political. This is a
political struggle for the character of the State of Israel.”
spits on a little girl on her way to school spits in the face of all of us,” she
continued. “Any stone which is thrown at a policeman or soldier injures all of
us, and any price-tag attack and graffiti of mosques embarrasses us
Other Knesset members from across the political spectrum also made
an appearance at the rally, including Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz and Shas MK Haim
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, former Labor leader MK Amir
Peretz said, “We can’t hide from this any longer. A young girl spoke out about
how she was scared to go to school, therefore it’s time the haredim realize they
have to stop acting like this.”
In Jerusalem on Tuesday, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu said he was glad that key rabbis had condemned haredi
violence and discrimination against women.
Speaking at an annual Bible
quiz for adults, Netanyahu said he had instructed police to arrest the
perpetrators of such attacks.
“Discrimination against women goes against
the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” he said.
Hoffman contributed to this report.