Shimon Peres urges Israelis to rally against extremism

Protesters gather outside the Orot Girls School in Beit Shemesh, 27 December 2011 Many of those at the protest were teenage girls

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Israel's president has urged Israelis to rally against ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremism in what he called a fight for the "soul of the nation".

Shimon Peres was speaking as hundreds gathered in the town of Beit Shemesh to protest against the way some ultra-Orthodox Jews treat women.

There have been two days of clashes in the town after a girl said she had been harassed on her way to school.

Some ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh are seeking to segregate men and women.

Mr Peres said today was a "test for the nation", not just the police.

"The entire nation must be recruited in order to save the majority from the hands of a small minority," Mr Peres said.

He said the demonstration was a defence of the "character" of the state of Israel "against a minority which breaks our national solidarity".

'Afraid to go to school'

Protesters, some holding signs reading "Free Israel from religious coercion" and "Stop Israel from becoming Iran", gathered in large numbers on Tuesday evening.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem

Anger spilled over after an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, said she was afraid to walk to school in the town because ultra-Orthodox men shouted at her.

"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 in a subsequent interview with The Associated Press on Monday.

In his statement, Mr Peres said: "No person has the right to threaten a girl, a woman or any person in any way. They are not the lords of this land."

Women have reported similar incidents in the town of 100,000, some 18 miles (30km) south-west of Jerusalem.

At the scene

By early evening thousands of demonstrators had gathered in Beit Shemesh, waving banners saying "Free Israel". People are angry at the growing influence of Israel's conservative ultra-Orthodox Jews and in particular their treatment of women. Local girls - some as young as eight - have been harassed for supposedly dressing immodestly.

It is a tiny minority of ultra-Orthodox who carry out such attacks. But many Israelis believe the country's character is at stake. They resent the fact that most ultra-Orthodox men don't work or serve in the army. Instead, the government gives them subsidies to carry out religious studies. One man here told me Jewish religious extremism posed a bigger threat to the country than Iran.

The Israeli government, so often critical of religious extremism in Islamic countries, has ordered a crackdown on intolerance at home. In this country there is often a debate about co-existence between Jews and Arabs. In Beit Shemesh, people were asking whether the varying strands of Judaism could co-exist.

Sarit Ramon described the situation in the town, where religiously observant immigrants live alongside Israelis embracing a more modern lifestyle, as having been "catastrophic for years".

"When I told that I was spat at a year and a half ago, people raised an eyebrow, and that was about it," she told Reuters.

Microcosm

Alisa Coleman told the BBC that she had been called a prostitute when dressed in a short-sleeved T-shirt and a skirt.

Though underlining that this behaviour was carried out by only a tiny proportion of the community, she said what was happening in Beit Shemesh was "a microcosm of what's happening in the whole country".

On Monday, one police officer was slightly hurt and a number of Orthodox Jews were detained after a group of some 300 ultra-Orthodox residents pelted police with stones and eggs in an incident reportedly triggered after police tried to remove a sign ordering segregation.

A television crew attempting to film in the town were surrounded and harassed - the second alleged attack on journalists in as many days.

Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel

Beit Shemesh
  • Ultra-orthodox Jews account for just under 10% of Israel's population
  • Rapidly growing community due to a high birth rate - meaning this proportion is set to double within next 20 years
  • Beit Shemesh, which lies about 30 km (18 miles) to the west of Jerusalem, is a city of about 100,000; Ultra-orthodox Jews account for about half of the population

On Sunday, a crew from Channel 2 news, which originally aired Naama Margolese's story, were attacked as they were filming, say reports, with rocks allegedly thrown at their van.

After Monday's clashes, unnamed ultra-Orthodox activists from Beit Shemesh issued a statement condemning the violence, but also accusing the media of initiating "deliberate provocations in order to make the peaceful, quiet and tolerant residents, who live their lives according to their beliefs, look bad".

Such clashes have become more frequent in Israel in recent years as the authorities have challenged efforts by ultra-Orthodox Jews to segregate women in public places.

The BBC's Jon Donnison, in Beit Shemesh, says the events have highlighted what is a growing religious divide in Israel.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10% of the population in Israel. The community has a high birth rate and is growing rapidly.

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