More grotesque religious fanaticism in the Middle East.
(AP) BEIT SHEMESH, Israel – A shy 8-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war.
Naama Margolese is a ponytailed, 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 new attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness of extremists in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community….The girls school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood 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 very 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 girls’ school, attended by about 400 students, 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.
Well, at least this sort of behavior can still cause a “national uproar”, but for how long?
The abuse and segregation of women in Israel in ultra-Orthodox areas is nothing new, and critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye.
The ultra-Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics — two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally been reluctant to enter their communities.
The ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel’s population. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighborhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.
“It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle,” said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and expert on the ultra-Orthodox, “a challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge.”
If Prime Minister Netanyahu truly wants to do something about this sort of behavior he needs to go further than the denunciations he has already made. To start with, he needs to review his choice of coalition partners. This may not be in his interests politically, but it would, I suspect, be the patriotic thing to do.
For Professor Friedman is right: The growing clout of the ultra-Orthodox is indeed an existential threat to Israel, not only because of the danger this rapidly growing element may come to pose to that state’s internal cohesion, but because of what it could eventually mean for what’s left of Israel’s external support. Much of that support rests on the fact that Israel (for all its flaws) is the best the region has to offer in terms of western values, but it’s hard to see how this backing will survive if Israel’s political establishment continues to appease (and fund) the rise of an increasingly assertive theocratic cohort.
There needs to be a change of course. Soon. How about it, Mr. Netanyahu?