Middle East

Intimidating protest highlight Israeli religious divide

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe protesters are offended by what they call the girls' "immodest" dress

The end of the school day at the Orot Girl's Elementary ought to be an oasis of peace in the family day - a chance for mothers and daughters to chat over teachers and lessons and who-said-what-to-whom.

But from the beginning of the current term a grim and disturbing drama has been played out instead in the busy street outside the school gates in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh.

As the children and their mothers make their way home, intimidating pickets of ultra-orthodox Jewish men have been waiting for them a little way up the street - some, say the families, have thrown stones and tomatoes and faeces as they have tried to pass.

Image caption Ultra-orthodox protesters say the school children are "defiling" their neighbourhood

At the peak of the protests the scenes were shocking and intimidating, with a baying cacophony of shouted insults reaching a climax as the small family groups tried to find a way along the pavement.

The ultra-orthodox protesters - all men - are a striking sight. Bearded and with their hair in long, wispy ringlets they are dressed in long overcoats and black, broad-brimmed Homburg hats.

It is a traditional costume with its roots deep in the past, but the insults the men shout are about how they think their neighbours should be living now, in modern Israel.

There are taunts about sluttishness and immorality - and cries that the girls are "defiling the neighbourhood". These are, unbelievably, references to how girls aged between six and 12 are dressed to attend a religious elementary school.

'Anxious every day'

It is surely, you think, the stuff of nightmares for the children - a thought that troubles mothers like Hadassah Margoleese, whose eight-year-old daughter Naama is one of the children running this gauntlet of anger and intolerance.

"These are little girls who are being abused every day and then they end up at night with nightmares," she says.

"My daughter is anxious on a daily basis now.

"When walking to school, when coming home from school, she either smells something that they've done on our streets - yesterday there were faeces on the stairs - or she's worried, she's scared of just the noise.

"Whenever she hears a noise she asks, 'are they there, are they out there?'"

By most people's standards Hadassah and her family are orthodox Jews - deeply religious, and modest in manner and dress.

That, though, is not enough for their ultra-orthodox neighbours, some of whom would like to see men and women riding in separate, segregated sections of the buses in Beit Shemesh.

'Hemmed in'

Not surprisingly it proved difficult to find anyone who would attempt to justify throwing stones or shouting insults at little girls - men from that wing of the ultra-orthodox tradition have no interest in engaging with the media.

But one ultra-orthodox Jewish man from Beit Shemesh did agree to talk to us.

Shmuel Poppenheim has played no part in the protests against the girls of the Orot school - and says they are wrong.

But he does think that the girls - and their mothers - should be dressed even more modestly than they already are, and he says this is also about the much broader issue of who controls territory in the town.

"We are talking about an area that is inside or on the border of ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods," he told me.

"The ultra-orthodox population felt the school was stuck there to block us, to put up a border that says this is how far ultra-orthodox population goes and no further than this."

What is happening in Beit Shemesh matters because it is a small but startling example of a wider trend in Israeli society.

The ultra-orthodox community, which has a high birth rate, is growing rapidly. It accounts for just under 10% of the Israeli population at the moment - a proportion that is likely to double within 20 years.

And that matters because the community has come to be seen by many other Israelis as something of a burden on their economy - many ultra-orthodox men live on welfare, preferring to spend their time in prayerful contemplation of scripture rather than more conventional forms of employment.

As the community grows it is likely that it will expect - and acquire - more influence in Israeli society.

That is certainly how things look to Rabbi Dov Lipman a member of the community whose families are running the gauntlet of ultra-orthodox protest in Beit Shemesh.

He is from a very different religious tradition to Shmuel Poppenheim, but he agrees there is a larger issue at stake here.

Rabbi Lipman says what is happening in the streets outside the Orot school as a microcosm of a struggle between different traditions within Judaism for the future of Israel.

"This is not so much about how the girls dress, it's really not." he told me. "It's about the entire city and the direction it's going in.

"I think that this is very much a case study for what will happen in the rest of Israel."

Israel often finds itself defined by the tensions which surround it - by the prospects for peace with the Palestinians or the hostility of its relations with the Arab nations it borders.

This dispute in Beit Shemesh, and the issues it encapsulates, are a reminder that sharp internal divisions too will play a role in the Israeli future.

No division looms sharper or more pressing than the one between the ultra-orthodox and the rest of Israel's Jewish population.

More on this story