BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — Thousands of Israelis poured into this Jerusalem suburb Tuesday night in a protest against religious extremists who've targeted women and enforced strict division of the sexes in public life.
As Hannah Beinish sat and watched the crowds from her rooftop garden, she wondered why they hadn't come sooner.
"The problem with these extremists is not a new problem. They have been growing in strength and in numbers for years," said the 42-year-old Beinish, who's lived in the city of Beit Shemesh for nearly 20 years.
"Only now the public has noticed and come to support us. I really hope it's not too late."
The Israeli public has been rocked by a series of recent reports about the behavior of extremist Jewish groups, which has included forcing women to sit at the back of public buses, erecting signs calling for the separation of the sexes on sidewalks and even the physical assaults of schoolgirls by ultra-Orthodox men who found their school uniforms immodest.
Naama Margolese, an 8-year-old American immigrant who attends the Orot school in Beit Shemesh, became a focal point of the outcry after an Israeli news station filmed her facing daily abuses from extremists. TV news footage showed the shy, bespectacled second-grader shaking and brushing tears from her eyes as she described men who spat at her and called her "prostitute" for attending the school.
A group of extremists has taken issue with the Orot school's location, near a hard-line religious school for men. Though the Orot school was exclusively for Orthodox girls — nearly all of whom dress in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts — in August a group of men began gathering every week to curse and threaten the students.
"My stomach hurts every time I need to walk to and from the school and I know those men will be there," Naama said. "They are scary."
The extremists have attacked other Orthodox Jews whom they didn't consider observant enough.
But the ultra-Orthodox community — which makes up about 8 percent of Israeli adults — is politically influential. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized for not acting quickly enough to stem the extremists and for catering to ultra-Orthodox political groups within his coalition.
In remarks broadcast Tuesday, Netanyahu lashed out at the extremists, however, saying they weren't representative of Judaism or the mainstream Orthodox movement.
"The Bible speaks of the fair way in which every person, and particularly women, must be treated," Netanyahu said. "The exclusion of women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism."
Israeli police and municipal officials issued calls for harsher action to be taken against the extremists, targeting cities such as Beit Shemesh and the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, where the groups have taken hold.
Beinish said that Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, had always been predominantly religious, but she called the new extremism unprecedented. She said she saw police arrive in the town on three occasions this week to remove signs that banned women from walking on the main throughways.
"The police came and the (extremists) attacked them with rocks, cursing at them and spitting," she said. "It took hours, and they took the sign down. Within minutes the extremists had put it back up already. ...
"The police kept coming, and the sign would just get put back up as soon as they left. We need a real change here, not just some superficial efforts to take down signs."
It was only after Naama Margolese's story aired on television last week, Beinish said, that politicians and other officials began to speak out.
"It had to take it getting this bad before the rest of Israel realized the extremism in their midst," she said.
On Tuesday, amid more than 3,000 supporters, Naama lit a candle for the final night of Hanukkah. She smiled proudly and thanked the protesters for taking up her cause.
She and her mother have vowed to stay in Beit Shemesh despite the harassment by extremists, who could be heard booing as the little girl wished the crowd a happy holiday.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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