As the girls made their way home from Beit Shemesh’s Orot Banot school late last month, they appeared relaxed and carefree. Among the students was the strikingly blonde second-grader Naama Margolese, heading confidently home accompanied by her friend. For Hadassa Margolese, who waited at home for her daughter to arrive while cuddling her youngest child, Yishai, Naama’s happiness and peace of mind as her school year drew to a close was a hard-won victory.
Only six months earlier, a Channel 2 television newscast showed a frightened, weeping Naama clinging fearfully to Hadassa’s leg on her way to school, the terrified victim of the violent harassment of Orot Banot girls by extreme ultra-Orthodox elements who objected to her school’s presence across the street. The school is located on Herzog Street, a major road that is essentially the seam between a national-religious neighborhood, Givat Sharett, and a Haredi neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, home to Haredi zealots.
Normally, it’s the children who look back at the end of a school year and consider the lessons they’ve learned. But this year, in the secular and national-religious communities of Beit Shemesh, it was the adults who got an education. Watching little girls being screamed at and spit on daily by Haredi extremists while the authorities did nothing, they learned that the struggle for territory and power in their city had reached a tipping point, and if they did not stand up themselves and fight every sign of extremist encroachment, they would lose their city.
When the trouble began, Hadassa Margolese was a young Orthodox mother of three, who had moved to the central part of the city from Ramat Beit Shemesh four years earlier. She had been part of a steady exodus of non-Haredi families, fleeing the growing intolerance of national-religious women. Walking the streets in short sleeves, knee-length skirts or with open-toed shoes resulted in glares, angry remarks and even spitting.
After she moved to more friendly environs, Hadassa recalls vowing never to go back to Ramat Beit Shemesh for her shopping or other errands. “I decided, you know what, I just have to stay in Beit Shemesh. I figured that if I stayed in my environment, around people like me and people who respect each other, that everything would be fine. And I was wrong. I was very wrong.”
The trouble actually came to her neighborhood in August 2011, when the newly built Orot Banot school was threatened by ultra-Orthodox extremists. The extremists said they would not allow it to open, claiming the girls’ immodest dress would offend them. For his part, Moshe Abutbul (Shas ), the Haredi mayor of the city, tried to prevent Orot Banot from opening on the grounds that he couldn’t guarantee the girls’ safety, and because he wanted to find a compromise that would involve moving the school. The parents lobbied the Education Ministry to overrule the mayor, and the school opened its doors over his objections.
On the second day of school, the extremists appeared on the sidewalk in front of the school and began screaming at and spitting on the girls as they walked home. Hadassa remembers that walk clearly.