Inside Story
Israel's deepening religious divide
As extremists are accused of harassing Israeli women, is the influence of ultra-orthodox Jews growing in the country?
Last Modified: 28 Dec 2011 09:53

Israeli police and ultra-Orthodox protesters clashed on Monday in Beit Shemesh, an Israeli town on the outskirts of Jerusalem where protests have flared over demands to crackdown on extremists accused of harassing women.

"The police are acting and will act - first of all to crack down on whoever spits, whoever lifts a hand (in violence), whoever harasses and I also ask the government offices and law enforcement authorities to remove street signs which segregate roads. It has no place in a democratic, free state. "

- Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister

A police officer was injured and several black-robed protesters taken into custody in the disturbances that erupted after a public outcry over televised footage of Naama Margolese, an eight-year-old Israeli girl complaining of verbal abuse from Orthodox men on her way to school.

Police were also investigating complaints that some of the Orthodox men had spat at and spoken "disrespectfully" to girls en route to an elementary school.

The case brings to the forefront, yet again, the issue of coercion by the Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has demanded a crackdown on the the men of which some have been accused of spitting at or harassing women they see as immodest.

This issue highlights a widening faultline in Israel between the religiously devout and a majority of moderate Jews. And a campaign to segregate men and women in public has caused a lot of anger in the community.

"It shouldn't matter what I look like. Someone should be allowed to walk around in sleeveless shirts and pants and be able to walk down the street and not
be harassed.

- Hadassa Margolese, mother of eight-year-old Naama Margolese who was insulted by ultra-Orthodox Jews

Though numbering only 10 per cent of Israel's mostly Jewish population of 7.7 million, ultra-Orthodox voting patterns give them considerable clout, helping them secure welfare benefits and wider influence.

So is the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews growing in Israeli society? How deep is the religious divide in Israel? And what will be the political repercussions of a crackdown on extremists?

Inside Story, with presenter Hazem Sika, discusses with guests: Gideon Levy, an author and columnist as well as a member of the editorial board for Haaretz newspaper; Ben Hartman, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post; and Gregg Roman, a former defence ministry official and deputy director of the Gloria Centre at the interdisciplinary centre Herzliya.

"It's not only a religious divide, it's also an ethnic divide, a national divide, a political divide. the Israeli society is a torn society, is a society of immigrants which has not been yet totally crystallised."

Gideon Levy, an author and columnist

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