BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — A sign outside a row of synagogues directing women to walk on the other side of the street has turned this town near Jerusalem into a front line of a raging national debate about the imposition of strict social codes by ultra-Orthodox zealots.
A community of 86,000 about a half-hour’s drive from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh has a growing ultra-Orthodox population. The town has become a cauldron of tension in recent days, with crowds of black-cloaked men assaulting television crews and facing off with police, pelting them with rocks and eggs.
The trigger for the violence was a wave of Israeli media reports about ultra-Orthodox Jews in the town who had put up the controversial sign and hounded local religious schoolgirls, spitting and hurling abuse at them for what they deemed insufficiently modest dress.
The plight of one frightened girl, 8-year-old Naama Margolese, was highlighted Friday in a prime-time television report, along with the sign ordering sidewalk segregation, fueling the debate in Israel over attempts to limit the public visibility of women — a growing trend that has generated an angry backlash.
On Tuesday night, thousands of Israelis gathered in Beit Shemesh to protest religious coercion and the attempts to sideline women. Some held up signs that said: “Exclusion of women is my red line.”
In broadcast remarks hours earlier, President Shimon Peres urged people to attend the rally. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state,” he said.
The sign in question, posted in front of three synagogues in a strictly religious section of Beit Shemesh, said, “Women are requested to move to the sidewalk across the street, not to pass near the synagogues, and certainly not to loiter on this sidewalk, which serves the synagogue-goers.” An arrow pointed the way to the other side of the street.
After the media reports and a directive announced Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sign was removed by city workers, but it was promptly replaced by activists with cardboard placards and a large banner that carried a similar message in bold red letters.
The prohibition on passage of women near the synagogues stems from a strict interpretation of religious restrictions on women mixing with men. Women enter the synagogues through separate doors and pray in separate sections.
When crowds of male worshipers emerge from the synagogues onto the sidewalk, it would be improper for women to walk among them, people living nearby said. “It’s uncomfortable and undignified,” said one woman, who added that she voluntarily crossed the street to avoid such mingling.
The developments in Beit Shemesh have been denounced by Israeli cabinet ministers, rights advocates and moderate Orthodox leaders, who described them as a perversion of Jewish law and an assault on civil rights, particularly the rights of women.
“Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state,” Netanyahu said at the weekly meeting of his cabinet Sunday. “In a Western liberal democracy, public space is open and safe for all — men and women alike — and has no room for any harassment or discrimination.”
Haim Amsalem, an independent ultra-Orthodox legislator, visited Naama’s family Monday and said the harassment that she and other girls faced and the sidewalk segregation “have no place in sane and moderate Judaism.”
The events in Beit Shemesh are seen by many Israelis as symptomatic of a growing encroachment of religious zealotry into the public sphere.
In Jerusalem, activists have organized to fight the exclusion of women’s images from advertising billboards in the city after signs showing women were defaced and damaged by ultra-Orthodox extremists.
A young woman attracted national attention this month when she refused to give up her seat in the front of an inter-city bus when passengers boarding in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood demanded she move to the back. Despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation on public buses, ultra-Orthodox women sit in the rear of buses serving their communities, with men in the front.
A group of religious army cadets was dismissed from an officers training course in September after it walked out of a singing performance by female soldiers, citing a religious prohibition against hearing women sing. Israel’s chief rabbis have pressed the army to exempt observant soldiers who wish to avoid such performances, but the army chief of staff said Tuesday that their attendance will continue to be required in official military ceremonies.
Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who is president of Hiddush, a nonprofit group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, said the creeping restrictions were “a slippery slope” that could lead to more bans imposed under ultra-Orthodox pressure.
“The question is: What kind of a country is Israel going to be, and will it be governed by the rule of law?” he said.
In the ultra-Orthodox areas of Beit Shemesh, graffiti on walls exhort women to “dress modestly.” One black-cloaked man who chased a reporter out of a shop Monday told him: “This is Iran,” a reference to the Islamic Republic, where women are required by law to cover their heads and bodies in public.
Walking with her children through a downtown square, Esther, an ultra-Orthodox woman who identified herself only by her first name, said she was baffled by the sudden burst of interest in her community’s way of life.
“Why does it bother them?” she asked, adding that she was more than happy to sit in the back of the bus or cross the street near her neighborhood synagogue to maintain strict separation between the sexes. “It’s not demeaning,” she said. “I feel uncomfortable when men look at me.”
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