Thousands of Israelis have rallied in a town near Jerusalem against ultra-Orthodox Jews whose campaign for gender segregation has erupted into verbal and physical abuse against women.
The protest in Beit Shemesh, 30km west of Jerusalem, on Tuesday was organised after an outburst of public anger over an eight-year-old girl's charges on television that ultra-Orthodox men had spat at her on her way to school, accusing her of immodest dress.
Police said that "several hundreds" of their forces were deployed to supervise the protest following attacks on media and police over the past two days by members of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Protesters held signs protest saying, "Free Israel from religious coercion" and "Stop Israel from becoming Iran", but members of the ultra-Orthodox community were nowhere in sight during the rally.
Activists' calls for a protest came after the broadcast of a documentary on national TV, in which young girl Naama Margolese said she was afraid to walk to school in the town because ultra-Orthodox men shouted at her.
In the run-up to the gathering, Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, urged the public to attend. "The demonstration today is a test for the people and not just the police," he told a gathering of Israeli ambassadors.
"All of us ... must defend the image of the state of Israel from a minority that is destroying national solidarity and expressing itself in an infuriating way."
Al Jazeera's Cal Perry, reporting from Beit Shemesh, said protesters were demonstrating against "unfair treatment towards the Haredi population in Israel, which gets away with things that other members of the population cannot. People are saying things like 'Israel needs to wake up'.
"There are about 5,000 people [gathered]. This is not a big city so it's certainly a big turnout."
Israeli leaders especially encouraged people to attend the rally after comments by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, that "treatment of this eight-year-old girl is completely degrading to Israel's democracy".
|Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up more than
10 per cent of Israel's population [Reuters]
Naama's persecution has drawn new attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness by vigilantes from the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
"When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared ... that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting," she said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency on Monday.
"They were scary. They don't want us to go to the school."
The new girls' school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.
The ultra-Orthodox consider the school an encroachment on their territory. Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, the students say.
Televised images of Naama sobbing en route to school have shocked many Israelis, elicited statements of outrage from the country's leadership and sparked a Facebook page with nearly 10,000 followers dedicated to "protecting little Naama".
"Who's afraid of an 8-year-old student?" Sunday's main headline in the leading Yediot Ahronot daily said.
Beit Shemesh's growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, dispatched "modesty patrols" to enforce a chaste female appearance and hurled stones at offenders.
Walls of the neighbourhood are plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.
Naama's case has been especially shocking because of her young age and because she attends a religious school and dresses with long sleeves and a skirt.
Some Haredi Jews, however, consider even that outfit, standard in mainstream religious schools, to be immodest.
"They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city."
- Hadassa Margolese, Naama's mother
This week Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, spoke out against the violence.
"The Israel police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and democratic state," he told his cabinet.
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 Netanyahu's coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally been reluctant to enter their communities.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up more than 10 per cent of Israel's population and are its fastest growing sector because of a high birth rate. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighbourhoods.
But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies