Yoav Lemmer, AFP
Last updated: 27 December, 2011

Israelis march against ultra-Orthodox segregation campaign

Thousands of Israelis gathered Tuesday night to protest against ultra-Orthodox extremists whose campaign for gender segregation has erupted into verbal and physical abuse against women.

Police said about 3,000 people showed up in the town of Beit Shemesh, with “several hundred” police supervising. There were no clashes between participants and ultra-Orthodox residents who have recently been filmed spitting at a woman and verbally harassing an eight-year-old girl.

Organisers had hoped for at least 10,000 to join the protest,

“No incidents were reported,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. “But we’ll be continuing security patrols in and around Beit Shemesh in the coming days.

Media said ultra-Orthodox rabbis had instructed members of their community to stay away from the event, to avoid confrontation.

Among the protesters were both secular and orthodox Jews, some with banners comparing the extremists to Afghanistan’s Taliban zealots.

“Excluding women is my red line!” another sign read. “We stop it now.”

On Monday, several hundred ultra-Orthodox activists rioted in the town of 80,000, 30 kilometres (18 miles) west of Jerusalem, showering police and television crews with eggs and setting fire to refuse bins.

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.

Images broadcast on TV last week of an ultra-Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh spitting at a woman led to his arrest on Saturday night. He was freed by magistrates on Sunday.

The same broadcast featured an eight-year-old girl terrified to walk the short distance between her home and school, since she is subject to verbal abuse of ultra-Orthodox men who claim her attire is not sufficiently “modest.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of gender separation and ultra-orthodox violence towards women, and keep the public “open and safe to everyone.”

The violence came after a wave of incidents elsewhere in Israel in which women have been compelled to sit at the back of segregated buses serving ultra-Orthodox areas or get off, despite court rulings that women may sit where they please.

Women’s rights activists say the ultra-Orthodox — around 10 percent of the population — have become increasingly radical over gender segregation and are winning concessions that harm women.