Thousands protest ultra-Orthodox extremism

"This is not only a fight for Beit Shemesh, it’s a fight for everyone in Israel," says demonstrator.

Beit Shemesh demo_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Shemesh demo_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.

Protesters from 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 from.”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.”RELATED:
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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 is 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.”Yonah, a 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.“Everyone 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 building.He added, however, that he would not join the demonstration because he opposes public rallies of any political nature.Leah, a 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 holiday.”“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.“The haredim 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 sector.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 city.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 community.“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.”“Anyone who 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 all.”Other Knesset members from across the political spectrum also made an appearance at the rally, including Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz and Shas MK Haim Amsalem.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.Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.