Public spaces must remain open to everyone, MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) declared while riding in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem on Thursday.
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Hotovely had harsh words for the men who last week spat at a schoolgirl they accused of being dressed immodestly.
“This extremist behavior toward young girls is a desecration of the Torah, and reflects a deep cultural problem,” she said.
Police on Thursday night dispersed hundreds of haredi demonstrators throwing stones, blocking traffic and burning trashcans in Beit Shemesh. Three people were arrested, but no injuries were reported.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to all forms of discrimination against women, citing the five female soldiers graduating from the Israel Air Force pilots course as an example of women’s equality.
Speaking at the graduation ceremony at the Hatzerim Air Force Base near Beersheba, Netanyahu said that “in the State of Israel, in which women sit in the cockpit, women can sit in any place.”
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Hotovely, the chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, along with MKs Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) and Shlomo Molla (Kadima), rode a “mehadrin” bus, in which ultra-Orthodox (haredi) men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.
It is illegal to enforce this separation, but passengers may voluntarily sit according to gender.
The three lawmakers also visited the Orot Bnot nationalreligious girls elementary school in Beit Shemesh, which has been the center of controversy since it opened in September.
Last Friday, an eightyear- old pupil at the school, Na’ama Margolis, captured the nation’s attention when she cried on her way to school, terrified of extremist haredi men who spat and yelled at her.
Also on Thursday, Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein announced the formation of a Justice Ministry team charged with making recommendations for dealing with discrimination against women.
Weinstein held a special consultation on the matter in the wake of recent events in Beit Shemesh. The attorney-general said during the meeting that the exclusion of women and violence against women had no place in a civilized society.
Weinstein added that the phenomenon must be dealt with, but that the state must be cautious not to intervene in the haredi community except when it was necessary.
Hotovely reported that when she, other MKs and Knesset staff members rode mehadrin bus line 418, most of the passengers moved to the back and did not disturb them. However, once the group disembarked, the men moved forward while the women remained in the back.
Hotovely noticed the arrangement, and boarded the bus once again, amid complaints from passengers that she was delaying them.
“When a Knesset committee delays you for five minutes, you complain, but when girls are attacked on the way to school, you remained silent,” she said.
“Are these girls free to be ridiculed and humiliated? Doesn’t everyone deserve respect, including girls on their way to school?” Hotovely added that the committee was fighting for the country’s sanity, saying she came to sound a warning bell and tell the “mehadrin passengers” that, as a part of Israeli society, they must abide by its laws and understand that public spaces are open to everyone.
The Likud MK said she was open to hearing the problems and complaints of parents and the school’s administration on this issue, even when the media storm calmed down, and that it was the “elementary human right” of every child to be able to get to school peacefully.
Molla quipped that he did not envy Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, who had to satisfy opposing groups in his city, saying that “it’ll never work.” He also praised the Education Ministry for getting involved and protecting the schoolgirls.
“The national-religious are the backbone of this state, and we must support them so they can educate their children,” Molla said.
He said that secular parties allowed haredi society to behave however it wanted for 63 years for political reasons, and now their deals were exploding in the face of a child. He said he came to protest in the name of thousands of humiliated women.
On Sunday evening, Molla, along with MKs Eitan Cabel (Labor), Rachel Adatto (Kadima) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), plan to join activists in a mass riding of mehadrin buses by non-haredi men and women.
The campaign was organized by the Free Israel movement and sponsored by the New Israel Fund, the Center for Jewish Pluralism, the Masorti Movement and other groups that helped plan this week’s rally for women’s rights in Beit Shemesh.
The Free Israel protests will take place on mehadrin buses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Ashdod, Haifa, Beit Shemesh and Rehovot.
On Saturday night, haredim plan a counter-protest in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood in response to anti-haredi sentiment. Thousands are expected to gather under the banner “Discrimination Against Haredim.”
Deputy spokeswoman Shlomit Bajshi said the police was not expecting violence, but that hundreds of police, border police and volunteers would be deployed to prevent any disturbances.Melanie Lidman and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
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