December 26th, 2011
02:00 PM ET
By Guy Azriel and Kevin Flower, CNN
Jerusalem (CNN)–Eight-year-old Naama Margolis is afraid to walk to school.
She's afraid, her mother says, because life has become a nightmare for anyone who doesn't follow the edicts of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have flocked in recent years to their city of 80,000 just outside of Jerusalem.
"They threaten everyone in town over everything they don't like," Hadassah Margolis told CNN on Monday. "We have suffered swearing, they have had eggs, tomatoes, stink bombs and rocks thrown at us. They do this to anyone who doesn't think, look or act as they do."
"I'm afraid when one of them passes by me," she earlier told Israel's Channel 2 "I don't know if he will spit on me or will curse me 'whore', 'slut', "bastards" 'go away from here' - exactly in those words."
The Margolis family, whose story was detailed Friday in a nationwide television broadcast, is the latest in a series of high-profile examples of what critics say are attempts by groups within Israel's ultra-Orthodox community to impose its religious beliefs on the public and excise women from the public sphere.
Last week, for instance, a young Israeli woman made headlines when she detailed her experience refusing a ultra-Orthodox man's demands that she sit in the back of a bus. Several well-publicized rallies have also voiced opposition to various forms of gender segregation favored by the ultra-Orthodox.
In addition to demanding more modesty and trying to segregate bus passengers, ultra-Orthodox Jews have posted unofficial signs in some neighborhoods commanding men and women to walk on different sides of the street.
The issue has prompted responses from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who broached the topic Sunday for the fourth time in two weeks.
He ordered officials to take down the street signs and promised a stiff response to harassment, saying that Israel was a democratic, western and liberal state.
"There is no place for harassment or discrimination," he said.
The issue has played prominently in the Israeli press for weeks, and much of the debate has centered on Beit Shemesh, where the Margolis family lives.
In recent years, an influx of adherents to what critics say are the most extreme sects in ultra-Orthodox Judaism has inflamed tensions with other residents holding less strident views.
The Margolis family practice Orthodox Judaism, but are not considered strict enough by the extreme ultra-Orthodox faction in the community.
"I am not anti-religious, anti-Orthodox or anti-secular" Hadassah Margolis said, "I am anti-bad people and they are bad. They need to be taken out of here."
In the television report aired Friday, one unidentified ultra-Orthodox resident was asked whether he wanted the entire city to become religious.
"Not just Beit Shemesh - all of Israel will be ultra-Orthodox," he replied. "And nothing can help you. The country, at the end, will be an ultra-Orthodox country whether you want it or not."
In response to growing tensions in the city, Israeli police and the Beit Shemesh officials announced a plan to install more than 300 security cameras to document harassment.
Police also have deployed extra officers to prevent violence, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Two suspects were arrested in separate incidents this week. One man spat at a passing woman. Another tried to attack television crews covering the events.
Much of the public debate in Israel has centered on who is to blame for the situation, with most holding the government responsible for ceding too much power to religious parties.
But much of the responsibility lies with Israel society, said activists who have worked on gender segregation issues.
"I believe while this government is responsible to the situation to a degree, they are not the only ones" says Shira Ben-Sasson Fustenberg of the New Israeli Fund. "All of us are to blame for not stopping this from happening when it first started, we could have taken a stand a long time ago."
Israelis outraged about the incident in Beit Shemesh have planned a candle-light protest Tuesday in support of residents there.
"There is a sense that extreme margins in the Israeli society are growing in confidence." event planner Tzviki Levin told Israel radio.
"There is an attempt to deny freedom and values of democracy, the values on which the state of Israel was created," she said. "The rally tomorrow is our way of making a strong statement."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.