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Israel town of Beit Shemesh is front line of a religious battle

December 25, 2011 |  9:20 am

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The name "Beit Shemesh" means "the house of sun," but these days many see it as a dark place where religious extremists defy authorities, intimidate children and attack the press. Trouble brewed for months  before intensifying when a little girl caught everyone's attention on prime-time television news.

Naama Margolese is afraid to walk to school, even with her mother. The third-grader says she finds the 300-meter walk terrifying because for months, she, her schoolmates and their parents have been harassed by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who didn't want the girls' school there to begin with. It's a religious school -- just not religious enough for some, dubbed "sikrikim" after a Jewish sect from ancient times.

A Channel 2 television report that featured Naama, clinging to her mother on the way to school, got everyone's attention. The prime minister, attorney general, minister of education and police commission have all spoken out on Naama's right to go to school.

"Israel is a democratic, Western and liberal state," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, opening the weekly cabinet meeting, stressing there was no place for discrimination or harassment on any grounds and instructing law enforcement agencies to ensure the public sphere is safe for all.

In a radio interview, opposition leader Tzipi Livni said public and political outrage has been to slow in developing and that despite such statements by Netanyahu, the problem will continue because the prime minister is politically dependent on such religious groups. Beit Shemesh, she said, is only a symptom of the splintered Israeli society, comprised of separate groups lacking a shared vision.

Naama's mother, Hadassah, told Israeli media Sunday that she wasn't happy her daughter was in the headlines but hoped that the exposure "helps draw attention to this story ... and helps put an end to it once and for all." 

Education Minister Gideon Saar expressed confidence that the problem will be solved with the help of police. He suggested restraining orders be issued, among other measures. "Naama and her friends must be given maximum security to walk to school safely," he told Israel radio.


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-- Batsheva Sobelman

Video: Israel television Channel 2 report on Beit Shemesh, with English subtitles. Via YouTube.