Clashes over segregation of women in Israel

Secular Israelis (R) argue with ultra Orthodox Jewish protesters in the central town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, on December 26, 2011. Photo / AFP
Secular Israelis (R) argue with ultra Orthodox Jewish protesters in the central town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, on December 26, 2011. Photo / AFP

Clashes erupted between police and several hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews from a town near Jerusalem who are campaigning for men and women to be segregated, an AFP journalist said.

Israeli police had stepped up their patrols in Beit Shemesh following unrest sparked by discrimination against women imposed by a radical fringe of the town's religious Jews.

Several demonstrators were taken in for questioning after police, and journalists were roughed up and insulted by ultra-Orthodox men telling them to "clear off," the journalist said.

There were also shouting matches between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

Residents of Beit Shemesh, a town of some 80,000 people 30 kilometres west of Jerusalem, showered police and television crews with eggs and also set fire to refuse bins.

The majority of the town's residents are religious Jews, among them a large and growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said one policeman was slightly hurt by a thrown stone.

Several placards urging segregation between men and women that had been removed by police were later put back by protesters.

Earlier, Rosenfeld said a man from Beit Shemesh had been arrested over an assault Sunday on a TV crew filming a sign instructing women to cross the street to avoid walking past a synagogue.

Other signs posted in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood instructed women to dress "modestly" in long sleeves and calf-length skirts.

The Haaretz newspaper said the cameraman from commercial station Channel Two was thrown to the ground and his sound recordist grabbed by the throat in the attack by ultra-Orthodox men.

Other journalists were also attacked and a police car stoned.

"A male was arrested and is being questioned in connection with the incident which took place on the Channel Two team," Rosenfeld told AFP.

"Municipal inspectors have been working in the street taking down posters ... Police have stepped up patrols in Beit Shemesh."

Unnamed ultra-Orthodox activists representing the Beit Shemesh community issued a statement in which they spoke out against the scuffles and stoning events, but blamed it on the media.

"We condemn violence in any form and shape, but at the same time condemn the wild incitement of the media that initiates deliberate provocations in order to make the peaceful, quiet and tolerant residents, who live their lives according to their beliefs - look bad," read the statement obtained by AFP.

Images broadcast on Channel Two last week of an ultra-Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh spitting at a woman led to his arrest on Saturday night. He was freed by magistrates on Sunday.

The same broadcast featured a religious eight-year-old girl terrified to walk the short distance between her home and school, since she is subject to verbal abuse of ultra-Orthodox men who claim her attire is not sufficiently "modest."

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of gender separation and ultra-orthodox violence towards women, and keep the public real "open and safe to everyone."

The violence came after a wave of incidents elsewhere in Israel in which women have been compelled to sit at the back of segregated buses serving ultra-Orthodox areas or get off, despite court rulings that women may sit where they please.

Women's rights activists say the ultra-Orthodox - around 10 per cent of the population - have become increasingly radical over gender segregation and are winning concessions that harm women.

Meanwhile, secular activists have organised a demonstration against the ultra-Orthodox coercion and violence, to take place in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening and say they expect 10,000 participants.

The demonstration will be joined by religious and some ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are making efforts to differentiate between the mainstream orthodoxy and such extremists.

Asher Gold, chairman of the student union at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Lander Institute in Jerusalem, told AFP he would be at the rally, stressing that the Beit Shemesh acts of segregation and aggression come from "a small and violent group that does not represent the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel."

- AFP

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