Israel has a new and unlikely national heroine. She is a small, blond, bespectacled Orthodox 8-year-old girl, the daughter of American immigrants who live in Beit Shemesh. Her name is Na’ama Margolese and she was featured in a news broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 about the ongoing Haredi harassment of the girls who attend the Orot Banot School, and about the problem of extreme Haredi control in Beit Shemesh in general.
Naama spoke on camera of her fears while walking the short distance from her home to her school, after numerous occasions when she was cursed at and even once spit on by the Haredi demonstrators. Israeli viewers watched as her mother, Hadassah, holding her hand, tried to convince her to make the short walk as she cried, whined and protested; it’s a ritual they go through every school day.
To the residents of Beit Shemesh (and to readers of The Sisterhood) the story of Beit Shemesh and the intimidation of Orot Banot girls is nothing new.
But just as the experiences of one individual young woman who refused to sit in the back of buses, student Tanya Rosenblit, last week galvanized mainstream Israeli public opinion regarding gender segregation on public transportation, the televising of Na’ama’s plight woke up the Israeli public. Until now, that public had remained relatively indifferent to the trials the Orot Banot girls and the residents of Beit Shemesh were undergoing. Members of an extremist Haredi group that have settled there over the past several years have been pushing for the creation of gender-segregated bus lines, designating parts of the city where women and men were directed to separate on public streets, and harassing the girls of Orot Banot on the ground that they did not dress modestly enough.
Immediately after the piece was aired on Channel 2, Facebook groups were organized and demonstrations in Beit Shemesh planned by angry citizens who wanted to take action. The power of the press had truly flexed its muscles. (The extremists were clearly aware of the damage done to them by the television coverage, as they demonstrated when they attacked the reporter when he returned to Beit Shemesh on Sunday for a follow-up story.)
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who clearly sensed where the political winds were blowing, went on a public relations push over the weekend to show he was taking action. Ynet reported that he “asked Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Saturday to instruct the police to act firmly against violent attacks targeting women in the public sphere.” In the aftermath of the Channel 2 story and the reaction, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh ordered workers took down street signs that directed women to cross the street and “not linger” in front of a synagogue. As they did so, Haredim threw rocks and called the municipal workers ‘Nazis.’
The fact that the government took action only after the media paid attention to Beit Shemesh is infuriating. The girls of Orot Banot have been under siege since school opened in September, as detailed here and here. They deserved firm action and government protection long ago: Na’ama should never have had to be terrified in the first place.
But the Orot Banot parents will take what they can get. One of them wrote on Facebook that the Channel 2 piece their “Hannukah miracle” and Na’ama’s mother said in a television interview that the numerous expressions of support that their family received following the broadcast felt like “a massive hug from the entire country.” They are joining together with their new supporters on Facebook for a massive Hannukah candlelighting, rally, and march on Tuesday night designed to drive the forces of darkness out of Beit Shemesh, and bring the city closer to the meaning of its name: The House of the Sun.