Sunday, December 25, 2011

Israeli girl's plight shows up extremism

Ultra-Orthodox Jews' bullying of child sparks outrage, with plans for a protest in her honour

JERUSALEM: A shy eight-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel's latest religious war.

Naama Margolese is a pony-tailed, 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 fresh 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. 'They were scary. They don't want us to go to the school.'

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

The ultra-Orthodox consider the school, which moved to its present site at the beginning of the school year, an encroachment on their territory.

Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, claiming their presence is a provocation.

Beit Shemesh has long experienced friction between the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about half the city's population, and other residents. And residents say the attacks at the school, attended by about 400 girls, have been going on for months. Last week, after a local TV channel reported about the school and interviewed Naama's family, a national uproar ensued.

The televised images of Naama sobbing as she walked to school 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 late yesterday in her honour.

On Monday, a police officer was injured and several black-robed protesters taken into custody after clashes flared over demands to crack down on zealots.

Beit Shemesh's growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, and dispatched 'modesty patrols' to enforce a chaste female appearance. Walls of the neighbourhood 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 wears long sleeves and a skirt. Extremists, however, consider even that outfit, standard in mainstream Jewish religious schools, to be immodest.

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

'The demonstration... is a test for the people and not just the police,' he said. '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 ultra-Orthodox are perennial king- makers in Israeli coalition politics - two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition.

In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighbourhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.