Israeli Girl’s Plight Highlights Jewish Extremism

Naama MargoleseA shy 8-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war.

Pictured: Naama
Margolese, 8, sits with her mother Hadassa in their home in the central
Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, Monday, Dec 26, 2011.


Naama Margolese is a
ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader who is afraid of walking to her
religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who
have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.”

Her
plight has drawn new attention to the simmering issue of religious
coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness of extremists in the
insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

“When
I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I
was so scared … that they were going to stand and start yelling and
spitting,” the pale, blue-eyed girl said softly in an interview with The
Associated Press Monday. “They were scary. They don’t want us to go to
the school.”

The new girls school that Naama
attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, is on the
border between an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and a community of modern
Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.

The
ultra-Orthodox consider the school an encroachment on their territory.
Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost
daily, the students say.

Televised images of
Naama sobbing en route to school have shocked many Israelis, elicited
statements of outrage from the country’s leadership, sparked a Facebook
page with nearly 10,000 followers dedicated to “protecting little Naama”
and plans for a demonstration later Tuesday in her honor. As the case
has attracted attention, extremists have heckled and thrown eggs and
rocks at journalists descending on town.

“Who’s afraid of an 8-year-old student?” said Sunday’s main headline in the leading Yediot Ahronot daily.

Beit
Shemesh’s growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs
calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, dispatched
“modesty patrols” to enforce a chaste female appearance and hurled
stones at offenders and outsiders. Walls of the neighborhood are
plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked,
long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.

Naama’s
case has been especially shocking because of her young age and because
she attends a religious school and dresses with long sleeves and a
skirt. Extremists, however, consider even that outfit, standard in
mainstream Jewish religious schools, to be immodest.

This
week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out against the violence.
“The Israel police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop
those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and
democratic state,” he told his Cabinet.

Thousands
of people were expected at Tuesday evening’s demonstration. Ahead of
the gathering, President Shimon Peres urged the public to attend.

“The
demonstration today is a test for the people and not just the police,”
Peres told a gathering of Israeli ambassadors. “All of us … must
defend the image of the state of Israel from a minority that is
destroying national solidarity and expressing itself in an infuriating
way.”

The abuse and segregation of women in
Israel in ultra-Orthodox areas is nothing new, and critics accuse the
government of turning a blind eye.

The
ultra-Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics –
two such parties serve as key members of Netanyahu’s coalition. They
receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally
been reluctant to enter their communities.

The
ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel’s population and are
its fastest growing sector because of a high birth rate. In the past,
they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own
neighborhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to
impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread
to new areas.

“It is clear that Israeli
society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle,”
said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and
expert on the ultra-Orthodox, “a challenge that is no less and no more
than an existential challenge.”

Most of
Israel’s secular majority, in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, is not
directly affected, but in a few places like Beit Shemesh – a city of
100,000 people that include ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox and secular
Jews – tensions have erupted into the open.

Last
week, a young Israeli woman caused a nationwide uproar when she refused
a religious man’s order to move to the back of a bus, and in Jerusalem,
the country’s largest city, advertisers have been forced to remove
female faces from billboards because of persistent vandalism.

In
Beit Shemesh, parents in Naama’s school take turns escorting their
daughters into school property to protect them. The parents, too, have
been cursed and spat upon.

Hadassa Margolese,
Naama’s 30-year-old Chicago-born mother, an Orthodox Jew who covers her
hair and wears long sleeves and a long skirt, says, “It shouldn’t matter
what I look like. Someone should be allowed to walk around in
sleeveless shirts and pants and not be harassed.”

On
Monday, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men heckled AP journalists who were
filming a sign calling for segregation of sidewalks outside their
synagogue, chanting “shame on you,” “get out of here” and
“anti-Semites.”

Also Monday, dozens
ultra-Orthodox men threw rocks at TV crews and police, and set a trash
can on fire, police said. Six men were taken into custody.

City
spokesman Matityahu Rosenzweig condemned the violence but said it is
the work of a small minority and has been taken out of proportion.
“Every society has its fringes, and the police should take action on
this,” he said.

For Margolese, the recent clashes – and the price of exposing her young daughter – boil down to a fight over her very home.

“They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city,” said Margolese.

Source: Aron Heller, The Associated Press