Israeli Public, Politicians Rally Behind Women’s Rights

Jerusalem, Dec. 27 – Israelis across the political spectrum are condemning extremist attacks on women’s rights by some ultra-orthodox Jews, asserting Tuesday that Israel will remain a bastion of gender equality in the Middle East.

The issue has been front page news in the Israeli media since a television news crew reported the harassment of an eight-year-old schoolgirl in the city of Bet Shemesh, who was spat at by an ultra-orthodox extremist. The attacker belongs to a radical sect that wants to close a religious girls’ elementary school that opened in September adjoining their neighborhood. The sect claims the girls are not dressed modestly enough, and members have repeatedly harassed and threatened students.

The ultra orthodox Jewish community in Israel numbers about 800,000, and has dozens of different sects divided on ethnic, theological and political lines. It is estimated that only 200 to 300 members of the radical Neturei Karta and Sikrikim sects are involved in actively harassing women.

A highly respected ultra-orthodox leader, Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokach, who heads the Belz community, criticized the violence.  "If there be any in our generation who believe that by war it is possible to spread the light of Judaism, they're wrong,” Rokach said in comments broadcast on national radio.

Ultra-orthodox parliamentarian Chaim Amsalem visited the schoolgirl’s family, expressing his solidarity and said the extremists vilify Judaism and discredited the law abiding ultra-orthodox community. Amsalem said most sane religious people “recoiled from these phenomena and shocking actions, but cannot express their distress mainly because of fear of the same extremists.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the political outcry and condemned the extremist acts. "Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state,” Netanyahu said. “The public sphere is open and safe for everyone – men and women alike.” The attempt to have separate buses and sidewalks for women “has no place in a free and democratic state.”

Opposition Kadima Party member Shaul Mofaz, a former army commander, called for stringent enforcement of the law and urged the police to enforce the law without compromise. Israeli media reported police officers arrested at least five ultra-orthodox men in disturbances Monday against police and TV news crews.

Israeli President Shimon Peres endorsed a protest planned for Tuesday evening in Beit Shemesh to back women’s rights, expected to attract thousands of supporters.

"Everyone – the religious, the secular, the traditionalists – must defend the nature of the State of Israel in the face of a small group which compromises national solidarity," he added. "No one has the right to lay a hand or threaten a girl or a woman. They are not masters of the earth."

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