I WAS SO SCARED’: Naama Margolese and her US-born mother, Hadassa, tell how the girl has been spat upon — because even this conservative clothing isn’t modest enough for ultra-Orthodox Israelis
Attacks by ultra-Orthodox shock Israel
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — A shy 8-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war.
Naama Margolese is a ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader who is afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.”
Her plight has drawn new attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness of extremists in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
“When I walk to school in the morning, I used to get a tummyache because I was so scared . . . that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting,” she said softly in an interview with The Associated Press. “They were scary. They don’t want us to go to the school.”
The school Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many US 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, claiming their very presence is a provocation.
Beit Shemesh has long experienced friction between the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about half the city’s population, and other residents. And residents say the attacks at the girls’ school have been going on for months. Last week, after a local TV channel reported about the school and interviewed Naama’s family, a national uproar ensued.
The televised images of Naama sobbing as she walked to school 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.” A demonstration was held last night in her honor. As the case has attracted attention, extremists have heckled and thrown eggs and rocks at journalists descending on town.
“Who’s afraid of an 8-year-old student?” said Sunday’s main headline in the leading daily Yediot Ahronot.
Beit Shemesh’s growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs calling for the separation of genders on the sidewalks, dispatched “modesty patrols” to enforce a chaste female appearance, and hurled stones at offenders and outsiders. Walls of the neighborhood 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. Extremists, however, consider even that outfit to be immodest.
The harassment “is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday evening, “with one of the most central and important among them being: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Thousands of secular and religious Jews attended the demonstration.
Protesters held signs reading, “Free Israel from religious coercion,” and “Stop Israel from becoming Iran.”
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 kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics — two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have been reluctant to enter their communities.
The ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel’s population. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighborhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others.
At the protest, opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, “It’s not just Beit Shemesh and not just gender segregation — it’s all the extremist elements that are rearing their heads and trying to impose their world view on us.”
Last week, a young Israeli woman caused a nationwide uproar when she refused a religious man’s order to move to the back of a bus.
In Beit Shemesh, parents in Naama’s school take turns escorting their daughters onto school property to protect them. The parents, too, have been cursed and spat upon.
Hadassa Margolese, Naama’s 30-year-old Chicago-born mother, an Orthodox Jew who covers her hair and wears long sleeves and a long skirt, says, “It shouldn’t matter what I look like. Someone should be allowed to walk around in sleeveless shirts and pants and not be harassed.”
For Margolese, the recent clashes — and the price of exposing her young daughter — boil down to a fight over her very home.
“They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city,” she said at the rally. “People have asked me if I intend to leave, and my answer is: absolutely not.”