December 26th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Ultra-Orthodox demands spark debate in Israel

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.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

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."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Israel • Judaism

soundoff (470 Responses)
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    February 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  4. Dana Smokey

    This is the perfect example of how people taking themselves too seriously are the cause of all the worlds problems. Using religion to separate people instead of living in harmony and understanding with all belief systems. Not only are these Heredes ignorant people who can't think for themselves they are also bigots.

    January 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  5. Yirmeyahu

    This whole story is disappointing. The situation in Israel has been getting worse in recent years. The problem is a sociological one and not a religious one, such actions cannot be sanctioned in Jewish religious law (halachah, which some here have called on making illegal, i.e. calling on a legal restriction on religious observance). The difficulty is that leading Orthodox Rabbis of universal stature are even dismissed by these guys, occasionally physically harassed by these types. They are viewed as aberrant (correctly so) and not representing the community. Unfortunately this has led to what can easily be perceived as silence on the part of the Rabbis, since they correctly feel that their words will have no influence on these people (and rightly so, since they have condemned such actions in the past repeatedly and this phenomenon seems to only have grown). Nevertheless, for better or for worse, the public wants and craves public condemnation (even fruitless condemnation). The situation is exasperated by what I see as a tendency in the secular public to capitalize on these situations as "gotcha" moments to undermine orthodoxy rather than try to find ways to build bridges with the Orthodox who do not wish to have these images be the face of their belief system.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:53 am |
  6. Ganmerlad


    This is a Jewish website I stumbled across (I'm not Jewish) that catalogs the abuses of the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel and in the US. What ultra-orthodox Jews are doing is no different than the Taliban, and it is important to see that most Jews are openly appalled and angry. As long as the Israeli government is kow-towing to these thugs (and that is exactly what they are) we should rethink our relationship with Israel.

    December 29, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Politically correct

      So because of a few radicals we should rethink our relationship to an entire country...Isn't that extreme. To judge any organization or religion by a minority of fanatics is just ridiculous.

      May 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  7. EnlightenedCanadian

    I'm never gonna date a Jewish man,I don't want to be treated like a slave.

    December 29, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Politically correct

      You don't have to worry an ultra orthodox religious man would NEVER marry out of his sect...Your judging an entire religion based upon the beliefs of a ultra religious group that makes up 7% you should be ashamed at such a raciest comment...

      May 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  8. Brian

    There's no such thing as Orthodox Jews or Secular Jews,the so called 'ultra-Orthodox Jews' are practicing the true beliefs of Judaism.

    If you're a Secular Jew who believes in gender equality,democracy and other liberal values,you're not a true Jew.

    I'm afraid the true face of Judaism will takeover America,Halakha law is already being practiced in New York.

    We need to make sure what going on in Israel doesn't happen here,we need to ban 'halakha law'.

    December 29, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • Ganmerlad

      They have a few communities in the Bronx. I don't think they are in any position to foist their views or laws on the rest of the US. Worry about Israel instead.

      December 29, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  9. Dr.Ron Paul

    Phew! I'm glad those religious fanatics weren't Muslim,otherwise we would be hearing a lot of people talking cr*p about Islam and Muslims.

    Lesson of the day:Every religion has their fair share of radicals,not just Islam.

    December 29, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • LoveAllReligions

      You have just made my life. To know that there are people like you out in the world just puts my heart at peace 🙂
      thank you for being a good, unbiased, and logical person.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    December 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  11. Want to remain a Jew

    Oh, shut up! I don't want your proselityzing. Christianity doesn't have that much to show for the past 1700 years!

    December 28, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • K.

      Christianity gave (and gives) food and education to the poor, operated hospitals when no one else would help lepers, and were active in the suffergette and abolitionist movements. It sounds though, like you've had a bad experience, and for that, I apologize for whatever happened.

      December 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  12. Don Jones

    "Religious" thugs will ruin the fabric of society if allowed to proceed unabated. It is a cancer on the world.

    December 28, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  13. Ann

    To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

    Stop these ultra-Orthodox Jews now before they destroy Israel. If the Israeli people do not stand together Israel will fall. I love my country but my soul is in Israel, the greatest nation on earth. My dream is to visit your country one day.

    Long live and forever the land of Israel.


    Long live and for ever the land of Israel.

    December 28, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • Cedric

      Get out of America.

      December 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  14. Ann

    I am not Jewish and I am not an Israeli national, but I am an ardent supporter of the land of Israel and it's people. These ultra-Orthodox Jews are a demented people and should be got rid of from the sacred land of Israel or they will destroy this wonderful nation that came into being after so much of struggle. STOP THEM NOW

    December 28, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  15. Hank

    Really, I don't see much difference between these whackos and the mullahs in Iran. Seeing the innocent little schoolchildren being harassed by these people makes me mad. I'm glad that people stood up against this, as well as Israeli leaders. Israel simply can not expect to be friends with America if such extremests end up dominating the country.

    December 28, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Politically correct

      REALLY!! You judge a country because of a few extremest? These are ultra religious fanatics, every religion has them they are a tiny percentage 7% of the population of Israel, and you judge all of Israel by theses people? Should America be judged by the religious fanatics? If so what religion is America? To judge a country on religion alone, is wrong Israel is made up of people of all religions just like America and ever other country in the world. I'm applaud at the comments judging a country religiously and worse by religious fanatic

      May 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  16. Reality

    Dear Ultra-Orthodox Jews who did not read this on p.1 and p. 5 and p. 6 and p. 9.

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."

    December 27, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Why do you keep making the literalist error Reality?

      December 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • .........

      hit report abuse on all reality repeat bull sh it

      December 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  17. LinCA

    Evaluate morality.


    December 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  18. Robert

    Wow. I am really glad that I am an Atheist and am not beholden so hopelessly outdated concept of morality.

    December 27, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • Peter

      Hi Eliesheva! I was wondering if you could help me out! I am a seionr at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and only have 3 more months left of school! I am looking for something to do next year or the next two years, and I feel very passionately about going back to Israel and working with refugees. Last year I took 6 months off from school and studied at Ben Gurion University, worked a bit for the Hotline for Migrant Workers and a local soup kitchen in Be'er Sheva. Working for the hotline truly roused my passion for the situation in Darfur and the refugee crisis in Israel. Do you know of any organization I can be a fulltime worker for? I would love to volunteer, but unfortunately, I need to be making a bit of money right now. Do you know of any organization that would allow me to recieve a stipend, or free housing, anything? I am almost fluent in hebrew, and have taken arabic for 6 months! I hope you can help! I love your blog! It is so empowering and motivating!b'karov,Michele

      July 29, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
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About this blog

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.