PM: No place for discrimination in Israel

"Israel is liberal western democracy," Netanyahu says at weekly cabinet meeting following reports of haredim harassing 8-year-old girl; Livnat: "Live and let live."

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
The government will use all legal tools at its disposal to combat the exclusion and harassment of women in the public square, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet Sunday.
Netanyahu’s comments came as one minister after the other expressed outrage at the saga of Na’ama Margolis, an eight-year-old modern Orthodox Beit Shemesh girl featured in a Channel 2 report Friday night who was spat upon and harassed by extremist haredim (ultra-Orthodox) on her way to school, some 300 meters from her home.
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“Israel is a Western, liberal democracy,” Netanyahu said. “In liberal, Western democracies the public space is open and secure for everyone – men and women alike. There is no room here for any harassment or discrimination.”
Netanyahu said he spoke to Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Saturday night about the harassment of women by extremist haredim, and was briefed on actions that have already been taken and will be taken to arrest and act against those who spit, raise their hand, or harass women.
Netanyahu said he also asked the government ministries and municipal authorities to act to remove signs calling for gender segregation of sidewalks.
“This has no room in a free Western democracy,” he said.
The prime minister said the issue of excluding and separating women in the public space was not only a legal one, but also one of societal norms, and called on public leaders and spiritual leaders to work against this phenomenon.
Aharonovitch said that the police had arrested some 21 suspects since the beginning of the school year when extremist haredim in Beit Shemesh began harassing girls attending the Orot Lebanot School in an effort to get the school to move. He said that indictments were issued against nine of them.
Like Netanyahu, Aharonovitch called for more involvement by public leaders, the head of the communities and municipal officials in condemning the actions and calming down the situation.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni spoke on Sunday with Margolis about the situation in Beit Shemesh that followed up on several reports months ago in The Jerusalem Post. She said her daughter’s ordeal was part of a nationwide struggle.
“We have a nationalist haredi coalition that is trying to take control and force its worldview on the Zionist majority,” Livni said.
Kadima MK Yoel Hasson mocked Netanyahu’s condemnation of the situation in Beit Shemesh.
“Once again Netanyahu has woken up too late when it is clear that the situation is already out of control,” Hasson said. “Elements in our society are becoming more extreme and are spreading their darkness over the silent majority. This government has no intention of dealing with this delusional phenomenon.”
Last week, Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Yochanan Danino ordered his commanders and officers to enforce a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination against women.
According to guidelines sent by Danino to police commanders, any form of discrimination against women must be treated as a criminal offense or a public disorder incident.
Danino accompanied the orders with a condemnation of the phenomenon, describing “any attempt to harm the rights of women” as unacceptable.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in the cabinet that a situation where school-aged girls can’t walk to school without suffering humiliation was insufferable “The phenomenon of extremists trying to enforce a certain way of behavior on the public is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Sunday morning told Israel Radio that the haredi extremists who commit violence against women and girls belong behind bars.
Steinitz branded the haredim involved as “psychopaths and villains.”
He said Interior Minister Eli Yishai should order the mayor of Beit Shemesh to immediately remove the signs prohibiting women from walking on certain parts of the sidewalk in haredi neighborhoods.
Steinitz emphasized that he was referring to small groups of extremists, and not the entire haredi sector.
Ministry of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, meanwhile, drew sharp criticism for remarks that authorities should not intervene against gender separation in completely haredi areas.
She suggested that in places like Betar Illit and Modi’in Illit there should be a “live and let live” mentality.
“They have a specific way of life, we don’t need to force a different way of life on them,” Livnat told the Post outside the City of David on Sunday morning, where she attended a press conference announcing the discovery of a clay seal from the Second Temple period.
“They should be able to live their lives on the condition that it’s not affecting others.”
Livnat clarified that she would continue to fight for women’s equality in places with mixed communities like Bnei Brak, Ashdod, and Jerusalem – but not in places with a 100% haredi population.
“If their women want to live differently, we need to allow them,” she said.
Yaakov Lappin, Gil Hoffman and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.