Israeli PM Slams Religious Extremist Attacks on Women
    2011-12-25 22:01:52     Xinhua       Web Editor: Cui Chaoqun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday harshly condemned increasingly hostile verbal and physical attacks by ultra-orthodox extremists against women, and demands to limit their appearance in public.

"Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state. The public sphere is open and safe for everyone -- men and women alike. There is no place for harassment or discrimination," the prime minister said in comments released to the media.

Saturday night Netanyahu spoke with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, and instructed the police to take forceful measures against the phenomena.

"The Israel Police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand," Netanyahu said in reference to an incident on Thursday in the suburban town of Bet Shemesh, near Jerusalem, in which a group of extremists in black ultra-orthodox garb spit on a schoolgirl on her way to religious school.

The assailants said the girl was dressed immodestly, although she herself is from a religious family, and attends a school that strictly adheres to traditional Jewish modest dress codes.

"They said they want me to dress haredit, and to give them the school," eight-year-old Na'ama Margolese, a daughter of American immigrant parents, told Channel Two television on Friday. Her mother, Hadassa Braun Margolese was forced to accompany her daughter to school, due to the ongoing threats and verbal abuse.

On Sunday, a crowd of some 200 haredi men assaulted one of the station's news crews in the town, breaking a camera and slashing the van's tires, the Ha'aretz daily reported.

Many Western immigrants who have settled in the town of 50,000 residents, say the incident was only one of many in recent months, a trend that some say is an organized attempt by certain groups claiming to be strictly religious, to harass them into leaving in order to take over the neighborhood.

Aharonovitch said that 21 suspects in such attacks had been detained since the beginning of the school year -- including the suspect in the spitting attack -- and that nine had been charged, according to Army radio.

Mort Barr, who divides his time between Bet Shemesh and Atlanta, Ga., and who is himself observant, said in a blog posting on the Atlanta Jewish News website, that "partly because there is no separation of religion and state and partly due to the local culture, the arrogance of the Chareidi religious zealots invades one's domain and creates unacceptable intrusions on one's life style."

"According to their belief set, the only genuine expression of Judaism is that of their own narrow, restrictive, parochial view and they are dedicated to forcing their will on others," Barr said.

He told Xinhua that the police try, but are largely unsuccessful in calming the situation or enforcing the law.

"Rabbinic leaders, as well as other Chareidim are silent or unwilling to speak out against this violent minority because, in my opinion, the zealots have threatened any opponent with violence or loss of respect. This very vocal and aggressive minority of Israeli (but not Anglo) Chareidim project a lack of respect and love of their fellow Jew."

Netanyahu said that the incidents were not only a legal issue, but "also a social issue. It is also a question of public and social norms; therefore, I appeal to all public figures and spiritual leaders to act against this phenomenon. The public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all."

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that those who took part in the attacks were "psychopaths and villains," that should be jailed. He added that the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, should instruct the city's mayor to immediately remove calling for women not to walk in certain parts of the sidewalk in strictly religious neighborhoods, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Despite repeated attempts, mayor Rabbi Moshe Abutbul and other city officials were unavailable for comment to Xinhua on their responses to the incidents.

Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat said in comment on the public debate on Sunday, that Israelis "live and let live." Her remarks, however, raised the ire of critics, owning to her role as head of the Knesset parliament's Interministerial Committee on the Status of Women.

Livnat said that in all-haredi cities, it would be "patronizing " for outsiders to tell the residents how to lead their lives. "I don't think we should tell them how to live," Livnat said, adding "We should live and let live," according to the Ynet news website.

A growing contention by some ultra orthodox Jews that Halachic religious law demands strict separation between men and women on public transportation and elsewhere in the public arena, has sharply polarized Israeli society in recent months.

Last week, five ultra-orthodox businessmen said they planned to set up a private bus company to maintain such segregation, in the latest development in a battle over the role of religion in public life.

The new company would operate in Jerusalem, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh -- all areas which have large ultra orthodox populations, and who, due to contested religious conviction, demand that men and women should sit separately on local and intercity buses.

Backers say the new service will be free of charge, in order to bypass an Israeli High Court ruling and Ministry of Transportation directives forbidding gender-based discrimination.

The initiative came after a controversy last week, when the driver of an intercity line summoned police in order to restrain an ultra-orthodox man who kept the vehicle from pulling away from a stop, due to his objection to a women who took a seat near the front door.

Tanya Rosenblit told the Yediot Aharonot news site that she boarded the Ashdod-Jerusalem bus, run by the national Egged cooperative, and decided to sit next to the driver, so he could tell her where her stop was when they arrived.

Israel's two chief rabbis, as well as other leading religious figures, have also in recent weeks came out strongly against segregated busing.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said he was opposed to the idea, and issued a statement saying that "a person can be strict about himself, but not about others. If the haredim (ultra- orthodox) want to be strict in their own buses, let them. But imposing it on other people is irrelevant."

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who had previously said that the ultra-orthodox were wrong in trying to impose their values on the rest of the country, praised the free bus idea.

A group of Bet Shemesh residents said on Facebook pages that they are planning to hold a demonstration at the school in question on Tuesday evening, against the assaults.

Another group of men and women say they are planning -- 10 at a time -- to ride on the gender-segregated buses on Jan. 1, and take seats in "off-limits" parts of the bus in protest against the policy.

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