JERUSALEM – Several thousand Israelis, from across the country’s religious and political spectrums, rallied in Beit Shemesh Tuesday evening against the growing number of attacks on local women and children by a group of radical haredim affiliated with the Sikrikim, a violent offshoot of Jerusalem’s Neturei Karta faction.
“Free Israel from religious coercion,” read one sign at the rally. “Stop Israel from becoming Iran,” read another.
The protesters came together at the urging of public officials – among them President Shimon Peres – and religious leaders including Rabbi Dov Lipman, a haredi member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, and Shas MK Rabbi Chaim Amsalem.
The incident that galvanized much of the country and concentrated its focus on Beit Shemesh occurred last week when 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis, the daughter of Orthodox American immigrants, was spat on by a member of the Sikrikim who claimed the girl was not dressed “modestly enough” as she walked to Orot Banot, a nearby Religious Zionist school.
Though police arrested Na’ama’s attacker, a Jerusalem judge released him less than 12 hours later. A crew from Israel’s Channel 2 TV News, which arrived in Beit Shemesh to film local reaction to the incident, was subsequently attacked by the Sikrikim.
After the Margolis story aired over the weekend, the dispute in Beit Shemesh became national news and the violence ratcheted up a notch.
On Sunday, haredi rioters surrounded and threw stones at city workers removing signs calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets. When haredi activists put up new signs to replace them, the police who returned to remove them Monday encountered rioting by about 300 haredi men who threw stones at police and burned trash cans.
Beit Shemesh, with its mixed religious and non-religious population and its mushrooming ultra-Orthodox satellite, Ramat Beit Shemesh, is home to more than 80,000 residents, including hundreds of new immigrant families from North America and the UK. During the past five years several dozen Neturei Karta-affiliated families, who could no longer afford Jerusalem’s soaring real estate prices, moved into a new Beit Shemesh housing complex, adjacent to the neighborhood populated by Orthodox American and British immigrants.
Upon their arrival, the radicals attempted to intimidate both religious and non-religious residents by attempting to impose a strict “dress code” in and around their enclave. In recent months, members of the radical faction have become increasingly violent, hurling rocks at young girls who attend Orot Banot, calling them “sluts” and “shiksas.”
The group also began posting signs on public streets against men and women congregating within their enclave.
The mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbol, who was elected on a (haredi) Shas Party platform and who had been widely criticized by residents for caving into the demands of the radicals, abruptly changed course in the wake of the attack on Na’ama Margolis.
“There is no reason on earth for a person to raise a hand – let alone on helpless girls,” Abutbol said on Tuesday. Referring to other recent acts of violence perpetrated by local ultra-Orthodox men, the mayor said “there is no pardon for those who behave provocatively. Rioters should be treated with a firm hand.”
The attack on Margolis also prompted Rabbis Lipman and Amsalem to take action. Rabbi Lipman, who has semicha from Baltimore’s Ner Israel yeshiva and a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins University, made aliyah to Beit Shemesh with his wife and four children in 2004.
Rabbi Amsalem, who has been severely critical of Shas leader Eli Yishai, formed his own political faction, Am Shalem, earlier this year and recruited Rabbi Lipman to support his social activist agenda.
Rabbi Lipman told The Jewish Press he “got involved with local politics and this demonstration because I realized it was the right thing to do. However, I never imagined when I made aliyah in 2004 that this would be my calling. I am a haredi-American who is concerned about the future of Eretz Yisrael. We are against anyone who tries to force their way of life on everyone else. Beit Shemesh is not a haredi city. We, religious and non-religious citizens alike, are demonstrating for unity, not division. We are not here to drive anyone out of their homes. We want people to respect each other.”