Women are afraid to venture into areas of city of Beit Shemesh for fear of being jeered, insulted and assaulted by members of the ultra-conservative community
The front line in Israel's war of the sexes
BEIT SHEMESH, ISRAEL // The tree-lined road adjacent to Hadassa Margolese's apartment building in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh is now a border that she adamantly refuses to cross.
Across the road lives a Jewish ultrareligious community that includes extremists who for weeks last year jeered at, spat on and physically attacked her daughter and other pupils of a girls' school, and who accost women they deem immodestly dressed.
Signs hanging on balconies of homes across the road appear as a warning for Ms Margolese and other female passers-by, demanding they enter the neighbourhood in "modest clothes".
"I am afraid of being attacked by them - I don't walk into that neighbourhood any more," said Ms Margolese, a US-born mother of three.
Ms Margolese, 31, is part of a less religious form of Judaism called Modern Orthodoxy, and she says that her way of dressing - which on a day last week included an ankle-length orange-coloured skirt, a close-fitting white T-shirt exposing most of her arms and flip flops on her feet - would be unacceptable in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.
Beit Shemesh, a town of 80,000 people about 30 kilometres west of Jerusalem, has become the country's most explosive front line of hostilities between a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and the less religious or secular majority.
The tensions have been especially fuelled by what civil rights groups view as the escalating attempts by the ultra-Orthodox for men and women to be segregated.
That includes unauthorised signs on streets demanding women avoid certain pavements, and posters in stores and medical clinics requesting them to don long-sleeved shirts closed at the collar and ankle-length skirts. The signs also instruct them not to wear trousers or "narrow or exposing" clothes.
That claims of discrimination also include segregated bus queues requiring women to sit in the back, as well as frequent reports of females who have been verbally abused or physically assaulted with rocks, eggs and other objects by ultra-Orthodox men.
Those signs and incidents have spurred a group of modern Orthodox women to launch a public-relations battle against the discrimination, filing police complaints, giving press tours of discriminatory areas and building up support through social networking sites such as Facebook.
Alisa Coleman, a 42-year-old UK-born personal trainer, told The National during a tour last week to show discriminatory posters near synagogues and in shopping centres: "If we allow this to happen in Beit Shemesh, it could also come to other places."
Analysts say the phenomenon has taken root in Beit Shemesh because many of its ultra-Orthodox residents in recent years have moved from nearby Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood, viewed as Israel's most extremist Jewish religious area.
Due to high birth rates, the community has experienced a housing shortage in Mea Shearim and many of its younger - and in some cases, more extremist - residents have sought relatively cheap housing in Beit Shemesh and other towns.
Yair Sheleg, an Israeli expert on the ultra-Orthodox at Jerusalem-based, the Israel Democracy Institute, said: "The fanatics in Beit Shemesh are only a few hundred families - a small minority of the entire ultra-Orthodox community there - but they are making a lot of noise." Mr Sheleg added that such extremists typically live in insular communities that do not recognise the state's authority and have little or no cooperation with law-enforcement agencies.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 per cent of the country's population. Ultra-Orthodox political parties have been part of almost every ruling coalition in recent decades, exerting influence that may have hindered wider crackdowns of discriminatory behaviour.
In Beit Shemesh, for example, both the mayor and his deputy are ultra-Orthodox.
The behaviour towards women in the town drew a national outcry in December, when a local television station broadcast footage showing Ms Margolese's ponytailed, bespectacled eight-year-old daughter, Naama, sobbing as she described being spat on and called a "whore" on her way to school. Indeed, just days later, wide media attention finally stopped the more than a dozen black-hatted ultra-Orthodox men from their near-daily heckling and physical accosting of Naama and other schoolmates attending the girls' school bordering an ultra-religious neighbourhood.
Other such cases in Beit Shemesh have also drawn coverage. In January, a group of ultra-Orthodox men surrounded the car of a 27-year-old woman hanging up posters for a lottery company, puncturing her tyres, breaking car windows and pouring bleach inside.
Activists have been encouraged by several recent legal rulings against the religious coercion in Beit Shemesh. Those include the case of a 15-year-old girl who last month was awarded 13,000 shekels (Dh12,000) after suing a bus company because she claimed the driver asked her to give up a front-row seat to two ultra-religious men and move to the rear.
In coming months, an Israeli organisation called Israel Religious Action Centre plans to provide legal aid to a group of female activists in Beit Shemesh to file a civil suit against the municipality for failing to remove the street signs.
One of the those activists, Nili Philipp, a 45-year-old mother of five who works at a local law firm, said she has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the hangers of a sign ordering women to avoid "passing or loitering" on the pavement of a synagogue.
Each of the three times in the past weeks that the police have taken down the sign after she filed a complaint, a new one was hung just hours later. Ms Philipp, a modern Orthodox Jew whose blond hair was modestly wrapped in a light-blue scarf, said: "The extremists dress up as people of religion, but they are bullies and lawbreakers."
Some Ultra-Orthodox men, however, have dismissed claims of discrimination.
One male in his 20s who identified himself as Baruch Deutsch, wearing thick black stockings and a calf-length black coat despite the hot weather, told journalists last week on a Beit Shemesh street that the signs were to "respect the feelings of the [ultra-Orthodox] residents".
However, for Ms Philipp and other women activists, the battle against the street signs and other forms of religious coercion is just starting.
She said: "These signs are a symbol of whether the municipality has our interests at heart or whether it is letting the bullies and lawbreakers run the place. At the moment it's the latter."