27 Dec 2011

Israeli president: ‘We are fighting for our souls’

We are fighting for the soul of the nation, Israel’s president has declared. As Ben King reports he is urging people to rally against ultra Orthodox Jews trying to impose a strict religious code.

The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh saw a mass protest on Tuesday, against the increasing gender segregation imposed by member’s of Israel‘s ultra-orthodox minority.

The ultra-orthodox live all over Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem. But the town of Beit Shemesh has become a frontline in this conflict because of the story of one little girl.

Her name is Na’ama Margolese, an eight-year-old pupil at the Orot Girls’ school in Beit Shemesh. The blonde pony-tailed little girl was featured on Israel’s Channel 2 television, telling how she was afraid to go to school after she had been abused by ultra-orthodox zealots.

“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,” she said.

When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared. Na’ama Margolese

Few outside Israel could take exception to her dress, or her mother’s. Her Chicago-born mother is an Orthodox jew, who wears a headscarf. But she didn’t meet the strict standards required by the ultra-orthodox population of Beit Shemesh, whose interpretation of the Torah scriptures calls for men and women to be kept strictly apart.

Dress is not the only issue on which they have sought to impose their standards on those who they live among. In some areas they have caused disputes by asking women to sit at the back of the bus. Outside the Beit Shemesh synagogue, there is a sign asking women not to linger.

The furore caused by the Naama Margolese story has forced the government to act, cracking down on gender segregation measures in places like Beit Shemesh.

Israeli president: 'We are fighting for our souls'.

The result was the undignified scene of men in beards and black hats scuffling with the army and police, and duly being arrested and bundled into vans.
But this is a conflict which has run for decades. The ultra-orthodox, represent just ten per cent of the country’s population. But they tend to have larger families than the national average, and their population is growing fast.

The country’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the violence. “Discrimination against women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” he said.

But the country’s proportional representation system gives minority parties a disproportionately large influence in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the parties which speak for ultra-orthodox interests are frequently in influential positions in government.

This has prompted resentment among other members of Israeli society. The refusal of many ultra-orthodox to join the army particularly rankles.

The ultra-orthodox community has many viewpoints within it, and not all support those who seek to impose gender segregation. Some vocally oppose it, and joined the protests at Orot Girl’s School today.

But the story of Naama Margolese has exposed yet another bitter division, in a deeply divided region.