A charedi man in Jerusalem on Dec. 13 walks past a poster showing a woman with teardrops drawn in under her right eye. In Jerusalem and elsewhere, women have been shunted onto separate sidewalks; buses and health clinics have been gender-segregated, among other similar acts. Israelis, however, have begun to fight back, following a television program aired the plight of an 8-year-old too scared to go to school for fear of being spat upon. Flash 90

For several years now, the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh has been the site of on-again, off-again religious violence.

It was not until the plight of a fearful eight-year-old girl from a Modern Orthodox immigrant family from the United States was broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 over last weekend that the religious tensions in Beit Shemesh captured the nation’s attention, including that of Israel’s prime minister and its president. It also has captured attention worldwide.

In the broadcast, the girl, Na’ama Margolis, told a reporter that she is afraid to walk the 300 yards from her home to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school for fear that the charedi Orthodox men who protest outside of the school will hurt her. Video showed Na’ama’s mother encouraging her to walk the short way to school punctuated by the girl’s whimpers and cries of “No, No.”

Some charedi residents of Beit Shemesh, a suburb of approximately 80,000 people, are upset about the opening in September of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, across the street from their neighborhood. Confrontations between charedi Orthodox activists and Modern Orthodox opposite the school have waxed and waned since the beginning of the school year, and often resulted in violence.

The Jewish Standard reported and editorialized on the violence in its Oct. 16 issue, focusing on a Modern Orthodox family that had relocated there from Englewood and their daughter, Ronit Wolfson, who attends fourth grade at the school.

As The Jewish Standard articles in October reported, charedi protesters have thrown eggs and bags of excrement at the young girls, and called them “sluts” and “shiksas,” among other things. Protesters say the girls and their mothers dress immodestly, with sleeves and skirts that are not sufficiently long.

It was not until Margolis’ story aired on television over the weekend, however, that the months-long dispute became national news and the violence ratcheted up.

On Sunday, charedi rioters surrounded and threw stones at city workers removing signs calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets. When charedi activists put up new signs to replace them, the police who returned to remove them Monday encountered rioting by about 300 charedi men who threw stones at them and burned trash cans, according to news reports.

Fights also broke out when news teams from two Israeli television stations were attacked by charedi extremists on Sunday and Monday.

On Tuesday evening, some 2,000 defenders of the girls – secular and Modern Orthodox – struck back with a rally at the school against attempts to exclude women from the public sphere in Israel.

“Free Israel from religious coercion” read one sign at the rally. “Stop Israel from becoming Iran” read another.

“We are struggling over Israel’s character not only in Beit Shemesh and not only over the exclusion of women but against all the extremists who have come out of the woodwork to try and impose their worldview on us,” Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, told the rally.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence aimed at women. Netanyahu also reportedly spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws prohibiting the exclusion of women from public spaces are enforced.

“The exclusion of women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Netanyahu told participants at a Bible contest Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, Kadima lawmaker Nachman Shai submitted a bill to the Knesset on Tuesday that would make “publicizing, inciting, preaching, or encouraging gender segregation in the public sphere” a criminal act punishable by three years in prison.

Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend Tuesday’s rally.

“Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us – religious, secular, traditional – must as one man defend the character of the State of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity,” Peres told reporters.

The charedi Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul, decried the violence against young girls and the exclusion of women. “Beit Shemesh denounces such behavior. Violent men belong behind bars. I urge the Israel Police to act with a firm hand against all the rioters,” he said, adding that reporters should not make assumptions about all charedi Orthodox Israelis.

Following the violence, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

JTA Wire Service