Battle rages for moral control of Holy Land


Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the city of Bet Shemesh on Tuesday as part of the escalating conflict within Israeli society over the exclusion of women.

The protest followed violent clashes on Sunday when the local municipality took down signs that had been hung in a strictly Orthodox neighbourhood instructing women not to walk on the same pavement as men, to dress modestly and not to loiter by the local synagogue.

The Bet Shemesh municipality had previously preferred not to intervene, but the growing public spotlight on the exclusion of women by the strictly Orthodox forced them to act.

In recent weeks, the reluctance of advertisers to put pictures of women on billboards in Jerusalem and the insistence of the strictly Orthodox that women should sit at the back of buses have hit Israeli and international headlines.

Bet Shemesh has been the scene of a number of clashes between the growing strictly Orthodox community - especially the Toldoth Aharon Chasidic group - and others.

Schoolgirls were spat at and called 'prostitutes’'

Most recently, girls attending a state-run school serving the national-religious stream, were attacked by Toldoth Aharon men. In a number of cases, girls as young as eight or nine were spat at and called "prostitutes".

President Shimon Peres also weighed in on the issue, saying on Tuesday that radical strictly-Orthodox elements "are not the masters of the land". The president said that "no one has the right to raise a hand or threaten girls or women" and called upon Israelis to join the protest in Bet Shemesh.

Meanwhile, the IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, sought to draw a line under female exclusion the army. He said in an interview on Tuesday that religious soldiers would not be exempted from attending military events where female soldiers sing. Lt-Gen Gantz made a distinction between "formal ceremonies organised by army units", where women would continue to appear and sing, and "non-formal recreational events" where "we can respect people's wishes" and religious soldiers could choose not to attend.

The issue has been bedevilling the IDF ever since four officer cadets were thrown off the officers' course for leaving an event at which a woman sang.

While some rabbis and religious soldiers have tried to make this a "red-line" issue on which they refuse to compromise, many religious officers are insisting that it unfairly characterises them as fanatics.

"In all my positions in the army, I have never left a ceremony, even if a woman was singing," said Lieutenant Colonel Eyal Asraf, the commander of the Golani Brigade's training base. "It didn't topple my spiritual world and the large majority of religious soldiers can deal with it."

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