Last updated: 30 December, 2011

Israel army rabbi slams gender segregation

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned as “intolerable barbarism” Friday efforts by hardline ultra-Orthodox Jews to segregate the sexes in public places.

His comments came after Israel’s chief military rabbi pledged that pressure from some religious officers for similar moves in the armed forces would not be tolerated.

“The phenomenon of the exclusion of women from ultra-Orthodox streets is an act of intolerable barbarism,” Lieberman said in an interview published by Israel’s top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“We need to change our priorities,” the minister said.

“It is inconceivable for the state to continue financing those who defy it and for the ultra-Orthodox to continue receiving subsidies, such as free (religious) schooling for their children.”

Lieberman has an observant wife and daughter but himself heads the staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, which draws most of its support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

His comments came after Israel’s chief military rabbi, Brigadier General Rafi Peretz, sent officers a memorandum condemning as “immoral” a slew of recent acts of discrimination against women and pledging that such behaviour would not be tolerated in the armed forces.

“Of late, there is a grave phenomenon of discrimination against women both outside the army and within it,” public radio quoted Peretz as saying.

“I’m working to ensure that radical, wrong notions, such as those which inspired the events in Beit Shemesh, will not permeate the army,” he wrote, according to news website Ynet.

Beit Shemesh, a town of 80,000 near Jerusalem, has witnessed a string of clashes between ultra-Orthodox activists and other residents.

On Thursday night, hundreds of activists torched refuse bins, blocked streets and stoned police sent to disperse them, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

“There were several hundred who took part in the disturbances,” he said. “Three people were arrested.”

Rosenfeld said that there were no immediate reports of any new trouble on Friday.

“There’s a strong police presence in the area,” he said.

There have also been a number of controversial incidents within the army, with religious male soldiers walking out of official events where female troops sing, and women at celebrations asked to move to segregated enclosures.

An Orthodox Jew was charged on Thursday with sexual harassment after he allegedly verbally abused 19-year-old soldier Doron Matalon for refusing to comply with demands to sit with other women in the rear of a bus.

Shlomo Fuchs, a 44-year-old father, was charged with allegedly calling her a “whore”.

“The increasing phenomenon of discrimination against women endangers democratic society,” a magistrates court hearing at which the suspect was charged was told.

On Friday, Fuchs filed an appeal against his detention and was later allowed to return home after posting a 5,000 shekel (1,000 euro, $1,300) bond, a judicial source said.

Bail in the case had previously been set at 20,000 shekels but Fuchs was unable to pay and had been remanded in custody.

On Tuesday night, some 3,000 Israelis gathered at Beit Shemesh to protest against ultra-Orthodox extremists whose campaign for gender segregation has erupted into verbal and physical abuse against women.

The majority of the town’s residents are religious Jews, among them a large and growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Activists have posted signs in their neighbourhood instructing women to dress “modestly” in long sleeves and calf-length skirts.

Israeli public radio reported that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein set up a team on Thursday whose remit is to report back to the government with recommendations on stamping out the phenomenon.