Friday, December 30, 2011

Extremist vilifies female soldier on bus 

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man was arrested in Jerusalem yesterday for allegedly calling a 19-year-old female soldier a slut when she refused to move to the back of a public bus.

It was the first such arrest since the issue of gender separation demands by the ultra-religious became a public issue in Israel in recent days.
The soldier, Doron Matalon, notified the driver, who stopped the bus and called police.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the Knesset that action would be taken against anyone who harassed women in public places.

"We'll stop the extremists," he said, attributing such incidents to "lawless fringe groups" and not the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole.

A prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi yesterday attacked the concept of gender segregation on buses as a distortion of Jewish law.

"Any attempt to prevent interaction between the sexes," said Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, "may only give rise to unwanted urges."

An ultra-Orthodox Knesset member, Haim Amsalam, said the demand for segregated buses had arisen about 20 years ago because the paucity of public transport had led to crowded buses and close physical contact which many found disturbing.

The more extreme, however, have sought to extend the concept, even demanding in the town of Beit Shemesh that women not use the pavement in front of a synagogue.

Media throughout the Arab world have played the issue prominently on front pages. Al-Hayat, a London Arabic newspaper, said that religious fanaticism "poses a strategic threat to Israel as it destabilises its relationship with the West". The paper noted, correctly, that the critical swing vote of the ultra-Orthodox, who constitute 8 per cent of the country's Jewish population, had caused the sector to be coddled by all Israeli governments.

The point made by the paper about the impact of the issue on Israel's relations with the West appears to be shared by Netanyahu, who said the determination to fight extremism "is part of what makes Israel a liberal Western democracy".

Several thousand demonstrators this week gathered in Beit Shemesh to decry the imposition by local ultra-Orthodox Jews of gender separation in public places and their harassment of even young girls whose dress they deem "immodest".

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said the attempt by extremists to impose their world view on the majority constituted a struggle for Israel's character. President Shimon Peres, referring to the rise of religious extremism, said, "We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state."

Police were on hand at the demonstration but local rabbis had called on members of their community to avoid provocation.

Bait Shemesh became a national issue when 8-year-old Na'ama Margolese told Israel's Channel Two last Saturday that haredi men spat at her and called her names when she walked to school even though she is modestly dressed. Her mother, Hadassah Margolese, said the ultras were attempting to push other groups out of Beit Shemesh.

"People have asked me if I intend to leave and my answer is 'absolutely not'."

The demonstrators included seculars, moderate religious people and even haredim who said the action of the extremists was an embarrassment for the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole and for Judaism.


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